On the Ground: Homecoming - Shadows and the Africanist Aesthetic in Ephrat Asherie’s Odeon

In a new initiative called On The Ground, the Dance Presenting Series engaged five Chicago-based dance writers to be present for the week-long residencies that happen at the Dance Center. In addition to the performances, the writers also attend residency activities such as master classes, community classes, or discussions. Columbia College Chicago alumna Brianna Heath participated in the activities during Ephrat Asherie Dance’s residency, October 15-20, 2019.

The ensemble winds down from the heat of their dance—sweat and bodies flinging, breaking, gestures, head jerks, moments of fulfillment and laughter, stepping, hints of vogue, samba and undulations of the spine. This is the kind of dancing that fulfills communities and keeps the people thriving and alive – social dance. The ensemble takes a breath from the rhythm and exits the stage, leaving three dancers to sit in the residue. They form a line: backs facing the audience, arms extending out from their backs and floating above their heads, feet firmly planted. As their bodies float, shadows appear on the back wall of the theatre, growing larger as the dancers’ movements expand from slow undulations to quick flickers of social dance. The shadows elongate the varying movement vocabularies, past the dancers’ bodies, past the confines of the intimate theatre, past time.

Ephrat Asherie Dance made their Chicago debut of Odeon at the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago opening the Center’s 45th Anniversary Season. The new work featuring seven dancers and four musicians, is a collaboration between choreographer and b-girl, Ephrat Asherie and her brother, composer and musical director, Ehud Asherie. Accompanied by the musical compositions of Ernest Nazareth, a Brazilian classical composer influenced by Latinx and African rhythms, Odeon is a high energy dance that investigates the history and complexity of social dance—particularly dances found in the house, club and street dance scenes. The work ultimately creates space for conversation between the dancer and the viewer, one that questions our relationship(s) to each other, and how we have moved together across time and space.

I had the privilege of engaging with Asherie and her company during their residency at the Dance Center in various lectures and classes. The residency coincided with the highly anticipated B-Series: Be Free – a “gathering space for the underground dance community [that] connect[s] the rich culture of hip hop, from dancing to MCing, rapping, DJing, and graffiti, to the Columbia community”—hosted by the Dance Center and spearheaded by Associate Professor of Instruction and street dancer Kelsa “K-Soul” Robinson.

photo by Matthew Murphy.

photo by Matthew Murphy.

Vibrant and full of respect for her community, Asherie makes one thing clear to students: the difference between social dance as choreography and social dance found in the clubs and on the streets. While she makes it clear to students that the social dance forms seen in her work are not “at home” on the concert dance stage, and do not represent the authenticity of club and street dances nor their communities, there is a kind of “homecoming” that is revealed in each of her dancer’s fierceness, specificity, and individuality that draws attention to the history of Africanist aesthetics in American concert dance. Odeon brings the point home that neither the forms’ aesthetics, nor the bodies represented on stage are strangers to the contemporary dance world. The work recognizes and celebrates not only the diverse movement vocabularies of underground dance communities, but honors the bodies, histories, and rhythms that the American concert dance stage is influenced by, but often ignores. Social dance may not be at home on this stage, but perhaps Odeon, and works that have come before it, represent a celebratory homecoming, and rightful acknowledgement of the histories and movements that roam the crystalized American stage like ghosts

And all of us in the audience, whether we know it or not, become wrapped up in this homecoming; from the time we enter the theatre house music is playing the background as we greet a friend or two and grab our seats. Our instructions at the beginning of the show are to not be afraid to verbally respond to what we see, and the energy we feel from the dancing. The house lights stay on as two dancers ascend from the audience and onto the stage to engage in a juba-esque battle that gets more polyrhythmic and playful as it goes on. Even in the moments where the samba is happening in close proximity to a cypher, or a fierce vogueing solo becomes the center and root of a breaking circle, we are presented several moments to question the relationship between the movement and the music, the dancers and the musicians, ourselves and our neighbor who’s blurting out “yassss,” “you betta,” and “well, play that tambourine, then” at the top of their lungs. However, where we find ourselves within the celebration—like the evolution and globalization of house music and street dance styles—depends not only on where we’re sitting in the theatre, but also where we locate ourselves geographically and historically through our individual experiences. We may experience flashbacks of being in the club, going out with friends as kids, and learning different versions of famous dances, or remember embarrassing attempts to recreate that “one move” from a music video. In all, we are wrapped up in this homecoming, this recollection, remembering, and honoring of the past. The playful partnering, freestyle, and high energy unison mixed with the abandon of the musicians and our neighbors’ response, leaves us to discover and consider the complexity and impact of movement and human experience, how it shifts and changes due to diasporic encounters.

At the end of Odeon and Asherie’s residency, I am left considering the future of social dance and underground dance communities. Two moments enliven me: 1) seeing West African dancer and teacher T. Ayo Alston, tap dancer Jumaane Taylor, and b-boy Bravemonk, join Asherie in a post-show discussion joking around, smiling and reminiscing on their experiences and lineages as dancers in the community; 2) witnessing young dancers—some who were not even born during the heyday of the house parties, DJs and battles Asherie refers to in her lectures—gather on the Dance Center stage, connect to the music and each other, and dance with joy at their own time, in their own time. Asherie’s residency at the Dance Center feels like a full circle moment reminding us that movement originates from the ground, from the people, from what we see, hear, and feel.

I look forward to more reunions to come.

Brianna Alexis Heath is a dancer, writer, and arts administrator working and living in Chicago, IL. Her current research employs performative writing, installation, and Black feminist theory to reimagine and analyze performances of Black girlhood in the 21st century. Bri holds a BA in Dance and Cultural Studies from Columbia College Chicago where she studied with Dr. Raquel Monroe, Darrell Jones, Onye Ozuzu, and Dr. Nicole Spigner, among others.