The audience may have started quiet at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall during Thursday’s opening performance of Ephrat Asherie Dance’s Odeon, White Bird’s first presentation in its 2023-2024 Uncaged Series, but they definitely didn’t end the night that way. Odeon, the second collaboration between Asherie, the New York City b-girl and choreographer, and her brother Ehud, a jazz musician, fuses African and Latine street dance and sounds in a rousing synchronous performance of dancers and musicians.
Named for composer Ernesto Júlio de Nazareth’s album of Brazilian dances, Odeon is a 55-minute length social celebration featuring six dancers and four musicians, with costumes by Mark Eric. Nazareth’s characteristic blend of jazz, samba, and other African diasporic musical influences is a perfect parallel to Asherie’s choreography—a blend of numerous street and club dance styles. Old-School Rocking, Breaking, Popping, Locking, Vogue, House, Samba, Stepping, and a myriad of other styles from the African and Latine diaspora find home in Asherie’s choreographic flow, delivering a seamless genre blend that remains clean and succinct.
Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie grew up in the underground dance community of New York City and proudly wears the roots of her home dance scenes. A mentee of Breaker Richard Santiago (aka Break Easy), Ephrat has gone on to develop a substantial career as a director, choreographer, and performer, working with multiple figures like Michelle Dorrance and Rennie Harris, among many others.
For Odeon, Ephrat’s brother, Ehud Asherie, serves as musical director and brought his own extensive experience as an “old-schooled” jazz pianist to Ephrat’s old-school breaking background. Ernesto Nazareth’s compositions united the duo of street-taught artists as lovers of jazz, and it is this influence that laid the foundations of Odeon’s composition. Nazareth was known for softening the divide between classical and popular styles through his work, which is exactly how Asherie delivers street and club dance onto a concert stage.
When I entered the theater, the stage sat open and unadorned with a grand piano downstage right, calling to mind an antique ballroom just waiting for the evenings’ guests to flock in. When the lights dimmed, the dancers were the first to command the space with a spot lit Stepping-infused duet by dancers Manon Bal and Matthew “Megawatt” West. Conversing with each other in a series of claps, stomps, and articulated gestures, Bal and West emulated a playful challenge to each other and the audience to bring energy into the space. The clear percussive movement was then joined by Odeon’s two percussionists, Angel Lau and Fabio Oliveira, who launched the production’s musician quartet into de Nazareth’s “Brejeiro” tune, and the dancers into a trio as Bal and West were joined by Asherie herself.
Asherie’s choreography in Odeon was both the call and the response. Over the course of the show’s runtime, the audience became entangled with a fluid medley of solos, duets, trios, and quartets, sprinkled by full ensemble group work. There was an ever so natural ebb-and-flow to the directing of each segment, like people-watching at its finest. Asherie’s staging was carefully crafted to highlight a percussive or melodic component, all while invoking that social environment that was home to these jazz-birthed styles, like the quartet comprised of two offset duets, with Matthew West and Omari Wiles grounding (literally) to the bassline as they inched themselves across the upstage. The technique and strength of the dancers, who each boast extensive resumes, was apparent, but not intended to be a fixation. The get-downs were smooth and fluid, the popping was enunciated, the footwork was whistle clean, and the few peppered power moves were always impressive. But, above all, the dancers were present with everyone involved, as the styles were meant to be.
Odeon was at times dramatic and at other times dark, seeming to encapsulate the humanity of a social gathering. The viewer witnessed cheeky duets between Teena Marie Custer and Manon Bal, solemn moments between Omari Wiles and West, even violence committed by Bal and Val “Ms. Vee” Ho. When Bal and Ho at one point seem to snap the necks of Asherie and Custer and drag them off the floor, they are followed by a confused Wiles walking out to Vogue his thoughts to West. In this way, Vogueing was often used like dialogue, speaking clearly what the viewer is thinking as if relaying a message to a friend in a public place. When Wiles emerged onto the floor in bedazzled fingerless gloves, it was the type of entrance we can only dream of having into a crowd: eye-catching and momentous.
All the while, Nazareth’s music served as a complement, not a contrast, to the movement, both of which were born from the same social settings of ballrooms and get-togethers. The musicians were just as involved in the dance space as the dancers, a highlight being a duet between Asherie’s Breaking and musician Ben Rosenblum on accordion, who was momentarily mobilized from his evening spot at the piano. The percussionists Lau and Oliveira were also frequent movers about the space, blurring those same lines between art mediums that Nazareth so skillfully blurred between genres.
The end result was a vibrant work that calls these forms back to their ties to jazz and to the origins of community and identity found in the halls and ballrooms where jazz and its influences began. Odeonopened the concert dance space into one of the old social spaces Nazareth played, Ephrat trained in, and Ehud learned from, so it was no surprise when the audience was asked to clap along with the performance.
Toward the finale, a stunning solo by Wiles that featured a femme versus masc conflict, represented by Vogue and Hip-Hop vocabulary, evolved into African Diasporic movement, taking the work gracefully to the roots of jazz itself. With the heft of the deep history of street and club dance and Nazareth’s musical breadth, the ensemble’s performance together in the finale of Odeon left the viewer joyous and laughing, like all were leaving one big party together.
White Bird presents Ephrat Asherie Dance‘s “Odeon,” 2:00 pm matinee and 7:30 pm, Saturday, November 4 at Lincoln Hall, Portland State University, 1620 SW Park Ave., Portland. For tickets and information, visit White Bird.