The second American Dance Platform showcase of 2019, presented at the Joyce Theater as part of JanArtsNYC on Saturday, January 5, was a celebration of two companies exploring African and African American dance tradition. Ephrat Asherie Dance and Ronald K. Brown’s EVIDENCE, A Dance Company performed back to back double bills of different dance styles that have sprung from shared historical and cultural roots.
Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie is the New York City b-girl, dancer and choreographer, 2016 Bessie Award Winner for Innovative Achievement in Dance and founder of Ephrat Asherie Dance. Her company is rooted in street and social dance and dedicated to exploring the complexities of these forms, as well as “the expansive narrative qualities of various street and club styles including, breaking, hip hop, house and vogue.”
The double bill that she selected to showcase was nothing short of spectacular, due in no small part to her collaboration with her brother Ehud Asherie, a jazz pianist and composer, who lends both pieces his talent as a musical director and leader of the four-piece band that accompanied the performance with brilliant live music.
The opening piece is Nazareth Suite #1, created in 2018 as part of a larger work entitled Odeon. The piece derives its name and score from the music of Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth, whose compositions combine early 20th-century music with samba and Afro-Brazilian rhythms. Nazareth opens with two dancers playing a clapping game that replicates the syncopation common to African rhythm and sleekly transitions into a clever fusion of street dance and samba. The fusion is seamless, and one can imagine breakers and hip-hoppers in Rio naturally coming to this type of fusion because of the prominent role that both styles play in the social culture of the Brazilian metropolis.
Asherie’s dancers are flawless in every dance style they perform throughout the first and second piece, and Asherie proves herself a master of multiple styles of social dance, as only a choreographer with a great depth of knowledge and understanding of these dances can so freely and adroitly fuse styles. This mastery is only made more evident with her second piece of the evening Riff this, Riff that.
Created in June 2016, Asherie dedicates Riff this, Riff that “to the victims of the Orlando shooting and their families. New York City’s world-famous underground dance scene emerged from the need of marginalized communities – predominantly gay men of color – to have a safe space where they could express themselves. Each one of us deserves this basic freedom.”
And if Riff this, Riff that does anything, it evokes that feeling of utter joy that comes from freedom of expression through music and movement. Set to tunes by Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Bud Powell, Lester Young and Ehud Asherie, the piece is a celebration of the jazz dance that brought brazen, explosive life to the dance halls of urban America during the first half of the 20th Century. Yet the work is not purely a homage to a bygone era, as it brings something new to the equation, by incorporating aspects of break dancing, hip hop and voguing.
Brooklyn-based Ronald K. Brown’s company EVIDENCE, founded in 1985, took the stage next with a double bill that clearly highlighted the company’s focus on fusing African dance with contemporary choreography. The first piece New Conversations: Iron Meets Water, featuring music by multiple Grammy Award-winning pianist and Afro-Latin jazz composer Arturo O’Farrill and a live four-piece band, made its world premiere just last year.
The work “is inspired by the spirit Oxossi, a huntress who appears in both male and female forms in the Yoruba and Santeria religions.” As such, both its male and female dancers exuded strength and stamina equally, presenting that weighty, grounded power typical of African dance.
Although the costumes are beautiful and the dancers superb, the piece becomes slightly monotonous as its always at 100 and lacking nuance. The work that follows, Upside Down, an excerpt from the 1998 full-length work Destiny – strikes a better balance with a traditional African and Afrobeat score provided by Oumou Sangare and Fela Kuti. With a narrative thread that seems to address life and death within a community, Upside Down also successfully transmits the company’s desire “to reinforce the importance of community in African American culture and to acquaint audiences with the beauty of African forms and rhythms.”
Reviewed on 5th of January at The Joyce Theater.