In the early 1900s in Brazil, Ernesto Nazareth composed music for solo piano. Ephrat Asherie remembers the first time she heard a classical melody jazzed up with samba. Her brother Ehud is a jazz pianist, and as he played she imagined the composer blending Brazilian with Chopin, a Baroque artist playing in the waiting rooms of movie houses.
Nazareth drew in the popular music of his time. Maxixe, the Brazilian tango, was taking root, and choro, Brazil’s homegrown urban popular music, sounded on street corners in trios with strings and percussion.
Asherie is a New York City B-girl and choreographer, and she imagined crossing Nazareth and Ehud’s music with her own tradition — hip hop, house, vogue and breaking — urban music from the clubs and streets.
From June 27 to July 1 at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, she and Ehud will perform their new work, Odeon, in a company of seven dancers and four musicians.
It is a world premiere close to Pillow director Pamela Tatge’s heart — the first performance to develop wholly out of the new Pillow Lab. She is excited and committed to the work, she said.
Asherie has a deep of background and experience. Her Israeli parents moved to Bologna, Italy, when she was young, and she studied the jazz roots of contemporary urban dance as she immersed in the club scene.
“She is a deep researcher,” Tatge said. “She is so knowledgeable about the forms, she learned two instruments to get the rhythms in her body.”
Tatge has gotten to know Asherie through performances at the Pillow, and she invited her back for residencies in 2016 and 2017 to develop Odeon and has supported her in outside residencies, including one at Mass MoCA this past spring.
“The Pillow is my dance home,” Asherie said. “… I’m so excited to premiere the work there and thankful to Pam for believing in me. It gave me a place to focus. It’s a place that respects and cherishes dance, and you feel that when you’re there.”
She and her brother have plunged into Nazareth’s music, its many layers, rhythmic and melodic, singing with passion. The Odeon is a movie house in Rio, she said, and the name of the first Nazareth composition she ever heard. It was the first piece she fell for.
Nazareth often composed for piano, she said; his music is dense and agile, and she and her brother have translated it into different instruments, adding percussion and a bass line. Musicians converge and drop out and change tempo to adapt to the choreography. Ehud has played Nazareth’s music in concert, but here the music allows the dancers to breathe.
She has brought together a company of dancers she has known for many years through the club scene. She has a long background in African social dance, and she has taken care in learning about a culture not her own.
“I feel connected to this music,” she said.
She has lived in Brazil to study Brazilian music and its influence on B-Boys and B-Girls.
Some of the best DJs in the world come from Brazil, she said.
Her brother has performed in Brazil and made two records on accordion with a Brazilian guitarist, and she has studied the folk music of the pandeiro, a frame drum with jingles around the rim, resembling a U.S. tambourine. It is played like a djembe with the fingers.
In Odeon, she is working with a percussionist who has composed percussion interludes,
and she wanted to learn and understand the rhythmical cells of this music. A beat familiar to her from hip hop and reggae may have come from Africa and fused here with South American or Caribbean music.
Her percussionists in Odeon have drawn in a beat from the Rwandan area in Africa, a cabula rhythm, part of a Congolais tradition similar to the roots of Samba. In its essence, she said, it is part of a sacred tradition, used in a ceremony to put people into a trance.
She considers carefully what happens when a dancer or a choreographer takes a form that has grown in a faith, or on the street, and puts it onstage. She is never trying to recreate a sacred setting or a street scene, she said. She wants to understand the origins of the music and the movement.
In Brazil, she first saw the fast footwork of Orisha dances. Orisha is a Yoruba tradition. People came here from Angola, enslaved and forced through the middle passage. African traditions mixed with South American. Asherie feels joy in the music, and underneath it a lasting pain. Some scholars in African music talk about creating and playing songs as a release from trauma, and as a freedom, she said. She feels a joy in the music that can come from survival and at the same time a recognition of fear and anger and grief and endurance
When forms get commercialized they lose that depth, she said, and that history, and it matters to her to her to keep them.
Forms of Brazilian, African and urban street dance have become a part of her life through many years of club dancing and breaking and the environment where her dance traditions have grown.
She found the club scene as a sanctuary, she said, a place where people of color, LGBTQ people, communities could be themselves when they couldn’t aboveground.
“I’m white and Jewish,” she said. “The cast in Odeon is diverse, from Africa, Chinese Canadian, a white performer from Pittsburg. … I’m not trying to replicate the street or the club or a battle on stage, but the values from these communities have shaped my life.”
She recalled a House anthem — you may be black or white, Jew or gentile. It makes no difference in our House. It makes no difference who you are or who you love.
For her that inclusiveness is beautiful and meaningful, especially at a time when political forces can build publicly on exclusion and fear.
Dancing in the club, she felt at one with the group.
“You’re supported by the community,” she said, “and everyone on and off the stage is giving you that energy.”
She holds that energy at the core of her work.
While most of Odeon is structured, toward the end Sergio Krakowski on the pandeiro trades with a dancer, playing rhythms as she creates them with her body. Asherie has given them landmarks, a pattern of call and response, and they have rehearsed, but they have not set the music and the movement here.
“When people freestyle, they’re really connected,” she said. “As a choreographer I don’t want to lose that honesty.”
Something comes out when performers focus on each other, she said.
“It’s essence of everything we’ve done. One dancer and one drum.”
This story first ran in the Berkshire Eagle; my thanks to A&E editor Jeffrey Borak and Features Editor Lindsey Hollenbaugh. Image at the top: Ephrat Asherie’s company in Odeon. Photo by Christopher Duggin, courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow