In a rehearsal for Iyun Harrison’s Of Passage on Thursday, May 29, four male dancers sat in a circle of small, square rugs—as if in prayer. Spreading their arms in second position, their supple spines undulated with resistance, like ocean waves; their upcast eyes saw past the white walls of Kerry Hall’s Studio III and toward the sacred. With Harrison’s soulful, Africanist-infused ballet, the dancers told a story: the viewer could see young men being taught to “walk the line” as they came of age—the traditions that were passed on to them in order to truly become men, and the challenges of living up to those expectations. In a particularly stunning moment, three of the dancers held their rugs, creating little hammocks for the fourth dancer’s torso and arms; while the fourth dancer’s suspended body fell away, the men kept him tethered and bound to the group.
This quartet won’t be the only rite of passage featured in the upcoming Ashani Dances performance on June 6 and 7 at Broadway Performance Hall. In addition to Of Passage, Harrison will present the jazzy and fast-paced group dance Hush; as well as The Leaves Have Fallen, a duet previously presented at The BOOST dance festival and Seattle Dance Project’s, Project 7. The company will also premiere a work by an outside choreographer for the first time: Eric Rivera’s piece I am Strength, I am Life and I Am Woman, inspired by the poetry of Puerto Rican poet Julia De Burgos.
The women of Ashani Dances this season all come with professional dance resumes. Some of the men, however, are diamonds in the rough that Harrison has taken and polished; many of the dancers are Harrison’s former students for whom he’s provided long-term feedback, support, and constructive criticism even after they’ve studied with him. While Harrison says the women are often much easier pieces of clay to mold into a piece, the-less experienced men, though more challenging, often make for more interesting choreographic subjects, their limitations and lack of uniformity add color to Harrison’s work.
Watching the rehearsal for Of Passage, one might never know that some of these artists didn’t begin their formal training until their late teens—dancers such as Steven Cornwall. Cornwall was spellbinding to watch in rehearsal; he moved from his core, and explored the boundaries of physical form with the slithery grace of a snake. A trained eye wouldn’t be able to find the “chink in the wheel,” the dead giveaway that he didn’t have years of classical training. This natural-born performer executed the choreography flawlessly.
Other examples of Harrison’s mentees and company dancers are Julie Opiel, who dances with Ballet Memphis as well as Ashani Dances; and Sam Picart, a go-to dancer of Harrison’s featured in The Leaves have Fallen. Picart started with hip-hop dance before finding his way to modern and ballet; and Harrison has helped him bring forth the danseur from within.
“I think I’ve just always had the teaching gene,” said Harrison, who, through Dance Theater of Harlem’s founder Arthur Mitchell, is a direct descendant of George Balanchine’s teachings. Harrison, a Juilliard graduate, danced with Mitchell’s company, as well as Ballet Hispanico and the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica. But it was Harrison’s time in the Ailey II company that truly helped him master the lifestyle of a working artist.
The experience at Ailey, coupled with the desire to teach, helped inspire Harrison to use his company to provide “some transitional space” for dancers to enter the professional world. For many of Ashani’s dancers, this next performance is an opportunity that’s helping them build the skills they’ll need in the Seattle dance scene, and far beyond.
That’s not to say that the product is somehow amateur; on the contrary. Ashani Dances blends pointe-shoes-and-all ballet with classical modern dance and the Africanist aesthetic of the folk dances Harrison grew up with in Jamaica. The result is a company on par with Seattle’s elite in contemporary dance: Spectrum Dance Theater and Whim W’him, for example. As a Cornish professor, Harrison is still connected to the edgy, experimental dance scene in Seattle—after all, this scene is often populated by his very students. But Harrison’s international experience and classical background presents a refreshing niche in Seattle’s contemporary dance market; his technical, virtuosic dancers are appealing to both dance aficionados, as well as the general public.
Ashani Dances’ third annual performance is at 7 PM on June 6 and 7 at Broadway Performance Hall. For tickets and more information see ashanidances.org.