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Balancing Act

Ephrat Asherie Dance brings hybridized urban flare to the Dance Center of Columbia College this fall in an ode to the brilliance of Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth and a nod to balancing two worlds in one work.

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Ephrat Asherie Dance in Odeon (photo courtesy of Columbia College Chicago).

By Jordan Reinwald

From the Autumn 2018 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts

In early October, Brooklyn based Ephrat Asherie Dance will open the presenting season for The Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago with Odeon, an original dance work set to the music of Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth. Known for mixing early 20th century romantic music with samba and other popular Afro-Brazilian rhythms, Nazareth’s work was introduced to Asherie by her brother Ehud Asherie and represents a major influence on her choreography. Now in their second collaboration, brother and sister Asherie employ their multitude of knowledge to fuse Nazareth’s already multi-faceted music with Ephrat’s signature style of “street” and social dance styles filtered by more traditionally “performative” idioms. Asherie points out that her company focuses on works “dedicated to revealing the inherent complexities of these forms” exploring the “expansive narrative qualities of various street and club styles.” “I’m very excited on multiple fronts,” Asherie tells me as she bubbles over with insight about her collaboration with her brother, and her relationship to the music in this piece.

​Asherie's excitement about the music—and her respect for its composer—are clear as she pours praise for  Ernesto Nazareth. She shares his history as a “genius” composer with humble beginnings. Getting his start creating ambiance in social settings, Nazareth refused to take his music too seriously, playing his compositions to waiting movie-goers in Rio’s Odeon movie theater in the 1870s and ‘80s. Asherie, who is a staunch advocate for his work, insists those humble beginnings and the composer’s propensity to straddle the line between classical music and more localized, popular styles don’t limit Nazareth’s relevance, they only enrich it. “This composer is not as well known as he should be,” she says. “A lot of Brazilians know about him as a composer who has taken a hybrid approach to composition. He was always straddling those two worlds, and to me his music is incredibly rich because of that.” Asherie’s gateway into Nazareth’s layered composition style actually came from a piece of music called Odeon. “When I first heard it through my brother, I was really enthralled immediately, and I thought it was so danceable. It parallels a lot of my interests and my movement as I move through different genres,” she explains. And so, this match of Nazareth’s music, Ehud’s musical direction, and Ephrat’s keen ability to layer her knowledge into the piece, create what Chicago audiences can expect to enjoy this fall.

​Of the choreography, Asherie says, “The movement itself is really rooted in dances from the African diaspora, and I hope audiences will see that and make those connections between things like the Orisha dances, all the way through club styles like Vogue and house, and street styles like breaking and hip hop, and funk styles like popping and locking.” While the movement and the styles play off of each other, there is no bonafide narrative. That leaves the audience to make up their own, if they wish, or to simply enjoy the complex relationships developing onstage—and the relationships they develop for themselves, with the performers, as they watch. “The storyline is up to the audience. Aside from our relationship to the music and the musicians relationships to us, it’s our relationship to the ‘other,’” Asherie explains. Above all narrative, coming together with a sense of community is what Asherie stresses as the important aspect of this work. “I think the thing that’s always sort of surrounding my work is the discourse of these social dance forms,” she told me. “For me, that is where, the community and the culture is everything. I don’t feel like I’m ever trying to replicate the club or a break battle, or any kind of social environment because it will never be there once you put it on stage. However, the values and ethics that form the community are essential to my work as a choreographer and a lot of that comes from really being present to each other onstage.”

​Of course, there is an element of improvisation in Asherie’s work as well. While it is not largely improvised, as her score acts as the glue to keep the structure the same each time, staying in tune with the other performers helps to create an element of freshness and spontaneity to Odeon. She explains that they work to create a real “connection on stage. Even if something is super crafted and choreographed, it should feel improvised because it’s going to be different every time if we’re really listening to each other fully.”

Finally, as Asherie and her company are performing Odeon on the same weekend as B-Series (the Dance Center’s annual hip-hop and street dance celebration) takes place at Columbia, it is likely that the company and their representation of these dance styles will be important influences, and an important source of inspiration for the students and community who will take part in the festival in conjunction to seeing the show. “To me, it’s exciting that this event has a battle and it’s happening at the same time as the performance because I think that we should all be able to share all the time,” Asherie says. Though the two events have not been announced as connected in any official way, Asherie explains that she knows she and her dancers will be around, and will likely take part in the community that will surround the events of B-Series. For Asherie, her work and improvisational opens like B-Series’ battle “are just different expressions of the same thing.” They are about expressing community within the dancing space, whether that be a stage in a theater, or a corner on the street or a club. “It’s really interesting to talk about the shift that happens when you change the context. It’s complex and opens a lot of discussions around cultural identity,” she told me.

Odeon’s name suggests a lot. Audiences will surely be taken into a world of social dance, and maybe even feel a part of this world by the end of the performance. “Just by virtue of the Greek root of the word, it means a place of gathering. Odeon has always been that place.” And for audiences of the Dance Center’s opening performance with Ephrat Asherie Dance, Odeon will be that place again.

Ephrat Asherie Dance will perform Odeon at The Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago October 11-13.