REVIEW: Ashani Dances at The Baltimore Theater Project

From the DC Dance Journalism Project

REVIEW: Ashani Dances at The Baltimore Theater Project
By Christina Lindenmuth

We’ve all seen the paintings of Edward Hopper – his most famous being Nighthawks, a scene depicting four people in a diner late at night. It evokes a mood of dark monotony, loneliness, and inner turmoil. Love Me, Now Leave Me Alone, the Baltimore premiere of Ashani Dances, brings up similar feelings of pain and trauma. Ashani Dances was originally founded in Seattle, WA in 2011 and moved to the Baltimore area in 2015, where they are a resident company at Goucher College.

At the Baltimore Theater Project on October 14th, founder Iyun Ashani Harrison and his dancers take the stage with a single light flooding the back wall, wearing dreary hues of blues and browns, in total silence. I immediately feel a sense of desperation and heaviness as the dancers make their way towards the light, collapsing and convulsing.

A soloist (Harrison) takes the spotlight, brushing himself off and bending in all directions, trying to escape whatever is making him uncomfortable. He is stopped by another man in what becomes an intimate duet, a story of forbidden love between two black men. One man holds up a finger to the other, over and over, as if to shush him, to make him wait and reconsider, but the finger is always pushed to the side and followed by passionate holding, grabbing, and twisting. A poetic voiceover explains the feeling – “…your pain, your darkness makes me invisible to my own…”

The evening continued with the telling of more stories. We are taken on a rollercoaster of heartache and whimsy and madness. A few pieces gave insight to wonderful, brilliant ideas but left me feeling confused and wanting to know more.

An example would be the piece Images, where we see dancer LaTeisha Melvin dancing in place on the stairs in the audience. The lyrics tell a story of shame, of how “she doesn’t know her beauty” and “she thinks her brown body has no glory.” The soloist moves sensually, winding her shoulders and rippling the curves in her back, but she never raises her eyes and never moves from her place on the stairs. Beautiful and mesmerizing as it was, there was no resolve. I wanted to know more about this girl and her shame, and how she overcomes it, or gets consumed by it.

Another story that left me curious was Journey. Dancer Tarik Darrel O’Meally is left alone on stage after being part of an upbeat trio during which he and dancer Kelton Roth vie for a chance at love with a young, effervescent ballerina. O’Meally watches as they run off together and slowly slips out of his own mind. He starts by taking off all his clothes and inching closer and closer to the single light at the back of the stage. He kneels in front of it, his right hand looming over his head while the rest of him tries to stay clear of its sinister influence. At one point it seems as if the right hand consumes him, and his hands create ominous shadows that reflect above him. ‘He has gone totally insane,’ I thought. I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen, but soon the piece was over, again, with no resolve.

An evening of such raw emotion, chemistry and talent should have left me elated and satisfied, but I just can’t stop wondering ‘Why? What happens next?’ Perhaps Harrison left these stories open ended on purpose, to give the viewer a choice, much like the paintings of Edward Hopper.

The character and the expression are made clear, but it’s up to the viewer to decode any deeper meaning. The conclusion will inevitably be subjective, reflective of individual pains and experiences, and can turn an evening of dark beauty with Ashani Dances into something totally personal and memorable.

Overall the choreography was very well thought out; we saw a wide range of contemporary, jazz, and ballet movement as well as clever and meaningful use of pedestrian gestures. The company dancers also exhibited excellent displays of strength, technique, and acting. I am excited to experience more from Ashani Dances and see what happens next as we welcome them to the Baltimore community.