Seattle’s dance scene has plenty to offer: from ballet to experimental performance art to dance battles. Amid the different niches lies the unique Ashani Dances, founded by Iyun Ashani Harrison, which blends classical ballet aesthetics with contemporary, modern, and even Africanist ideas. This rich worldly palette was on display at their third season, which ran on June 6 and 7 at Broadway Performance Hall.
The evening opened with Yo Soy La Vida, La Fuerza, La Mujer by Eric Rivera, the first guest choreographer for the company. According to the program note, the work was based on the centennial celebration of the Puerto Rican writer, feminist, and activist Julia de Burgos. Maria del Mar Bonet’s folksy vocals played in the background.
Several sections of the piece represented various sides of de Burgos’ identity. Rivera wrote in the program that he explored the contrast within themes of de Burgos’ works: “its sensual style, sorrowful romanticism, and the feminist ideologies that affirm her rebellious spirit.” Throughout, there was a striking juxtaposition between her independence and dependence. Christina Kennedy’s solo, which grew into a slinky unison phrase with other dancers, was explosive, grounded, and boundless. Rivera then contrasted that freedom to a passionate and magnetic trio section between dancers Shannan McCormick, Sam Picart, and Thomas O’Neal. The trio narrated de Burgos’ two marriages, one passionate and fiery, the other loving and tender. Ultimately, the dancers’ commitment to de Burgos’ spirit infused the piece with an electric fervor fitting for her centennial. Though compositionally strong, the piece became forgettable as the rest of the evening took off.
Next was Harrison’s The Leaves Have Fallen, a duet for himself and Picart which originally premiered at the 2014 BOOST dance festival. As the pulsing Philip Glass score began, they started by dancing solos facing each other—Picart’s was gestural and angular while Harrison’s involved full-bodied circular motions. The costumes, form-fitting singlets and boxer briefs worn underneath silver satin nightshirts, highlighted both Harrison and Picart’s impressive lines; the flowy shirt trailed behind them, gracefully following every movement. The solos grew into tender and harmonious man-on-man partnering work. Although touching, the harmony craved tension. Harrison cleverly satisfied that craving right at the very end with an unresolved conflict: he kissed Picart’s cheek tenderly only to have Picart leave his shirt behind and walk away into darkness.
The highlight of the evening, Harrison’s work Of Passage, followed intermission. Four men sat in a diamond-shaped formation, each on top of a small square rug. Their bodies undulated and, as if in prayer, their gazes wandered past the physical constraints of the hall. The undulations grew into quick weight shifts on their forearms and later, explosive turns. Throughout, Rebecca Blackwell’s exquisite lighting added an aura of mystery.
Over the course of the piece, the four men experienced the coming of age process, and the challenges that come with fitting themselves into traditional notions of manhood. With an almost military-like discipline, they walked the line that symbolized their passage—quite literally, they lay their rugs down in a diagonal across the stage, walked through it, and picked up their rugs to continue the sequence. If one veered off, as dancers Sean Rosado and Steven Cornwall did, the others put them back in their places. Ultimately, Cornwall insisted on walking out of line. This led to an impressive section where the dancers created little hammocks for Cornwall’s limbs with their rugs as he suspended his body forward. He fought against the group’s effort to keep him tethered back to them, to traditions, and to the ritual.
Although the dance itself incorporated a specific linear narrative and literal ritualistic imagery, it provided room for a breadth of interpretations. Of Passage offered a relevant statement to human experience and existing patriarchal structures: boys have been taught to follow certain codes in order to be considered “real men.” If they veered off the established path, oppression would come; in the dance, Cornwall escaped the tethers only to fall to his demise. He walked toward the “guiding light” as his peers mourned his fall.
The evening ended with Harrison’s Hush, a refreshing contemporary piece infused with the grace of ballet and the sass of jazz. Dressed in colorful rompers, shorts, and tank tops, the dancers exuded a youthful and summery flair as they move sprightly to Yo Yo Ma’s cello and Bobby McFerrin’s vocalization. The individual sections were striking: a gentle classical pas de deux between Elizabeth Belyea (on pointe) and Samuel Opal; a group of women manipulating their arms in lilting movements akin to sea anemones; a witty and jazzy duet between Picart and Cornwall; and even a segment of Cornwall imitating a rockstar, complete with a spotlight, pink furry jacket, and a guitar. Although the sections lacked coherence to one another, who cares? The dancers’ carefree-ness made one itch to get up there and dance with them.
Ashani Dances’ show ran June 6-7 at the Broadway Performance Hall. For more information on the company, visit ashanidances.org.