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Ashani Dances Shows Range in Debut

Written by Sandra Kurtz

Samuel Opsal and Samuel Picart in Iyun Harrison’s
“Subway Stories: Dances on the ‘A’.” 

Photographed by Chris Bennion
It takes a lot of guts to imitate James Brown.  Many people have vivid memories of the Godfather of Soul; his lightning-fast feet and his peacock strut are icons of American popular culture.  As a stand-in for Brown, Markeith Wiley came pretty close to the mark in the final work on Ashani Dance’s debut show last weekend (June 1-3, 2012), but not every gamble paid off for the company and its director Iyun Harrison.

Harrison, who joined the faculty at CornishCollege last year, has a substantial performance resume, and though he wasn’t dancing with the company one can see his pedigree in the material he’s crafted for his young performers.  Time spent with Ballet Hispanico, Dance Theater of Harlem, and Ailey II, alongside a Julliard education, have given him great facility with the current hybrid combinations of ballet and contemporary dance.  But the works that he’s made with this raw material cover a wider range of styles and genres. 

The program opens with Subway Stories, a series of vignettes set in a train car, men and women daydreaming as they ride from place to place.  The men jostle each other and vie for attention, the women primp and chat, they all meet and part in various guises.  Harrisonmoves his men in and out of the floor with authority, using the momentum of the Steve Reich score to reinforce his phrases.  The women, working on pointe, have a more academic vocabulary, and seemingly more conventional relationships to match. 

This distinction carries over into several of the works on the program—Harrison’s movement invention for the men in his cast is often freer and more innovative than the women’s portion, which is something of a reversal from most choreography.   It’s great to see men step up to a higher level of articulation and virtuosity, but it would have been much more welcome if the women were expanding in the same directions.

At the center of the program are two very distinct works.  In Union, which is reminiscent of early modern dance in its austere ritual behaviors, Harrison moves a dozen performers around on stage deftly, but the substance of the work feels dated.  Powerful men fetishize selected women while the rest of the ensemble are acolytes and witnesses.  A pair almost break away together, but in the end they fail, and the cycle starts over again.  Union features the high tension and sculpted torsos of 1930s Graham or Humphrey, but doesn’t quite grasp their dramatic flair, leaving the audience with some pictorial images but lacking a kinetic push.

In contrast, For Christine seems to emulate the current preference for breath-based organic works using contact improvisation or release techniques.  Brenna Monroe-Cook tends to a small group of women, leading them on a journey, laying on hands while she’s guiding them.  The dance has many lovely and subtle moments, and Monroe-Cook gives a very tender performance (her years with the Jose Limon Company are very evident in the emotional connections she creates within the group), but these don’t always add up to a sense of development—the people seen at the beginning of the dance will remain unchanged at the end.

Neo-Funk Ballet, the James Brown-inflected closer, serves Harrisonand the company well, giving the performers a showcase for their freshly-minted virtuosity.  The women’s bouncy party dresses mirror their crisp precision, while Brown’s powerful vocal style carves a space for the men to shine.  It does what a closing work is supposed to do—gives the audience a clear and vivid image of the dancers and the ensemble to take home from the theater, like a kinetic parting gift.   And as Brown sings it, “I Feel Good.”