Making its Los Angeles debut, the award-winning Ephrat Asherie Dance will present its high energy UNDERSCORED at the USC Bovard Auditorium on October 19, 2023 at 7:00 pm as part of the university’s Visions & Voice series. UNDERSCORED pays homage to New York’s underground scene and its veterans, and features underground club dance legends Archie Burnett, Brahms “Bravo” LaFortune, Michele Saunders, and company founder and artistic director Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie. Admission is free but reservations are required. If you can, stay for the post-concert party. To reserve your seats, please click HERE.
Asherie is a choreographer, multi-faceted performer, b-girl and a 2016 Bessie Award Winner for Innovative Achievement in Dance. Her company has performed nationally and internationally and Asherie’s choreography has received several awards including Dance Magazine’s Inaugural Harkness Promise Award and two National Dance Project Awards. She was the recipient of a NYFA Fellowship (2019) and is currently a Jerome Hill Artist Fellow. Her choreography has been commissioned by Malpaso and Parsons Dance with additional commissions from Works & Process at the Guggenheim, Vail Dance Festival, Fall for Dance and the River to River Festival, among others. Asherie is also a co-founding member of the all-female house dance collective MAWU.
Asherie graciously took time out of her busy rehearsal schedule to be interviewed for LA Dance Chronicle. While chatting we discovered that one of her mentors was the late Gus Solomons, Jr. who I had the honor to share the stage with as a member of the Merce Cunningham Company. It is a small dance world still. During the company’s short time at USC, Asherie will be teaching two classes on October 18 at the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
UNDERSCORED, which pays homage to New York’s underground scene and its veterans, had its premiere in November 2022 at Works & Process at the Guggenheim in NYC. Asherie began thinking about and working it, however, years before. I asked her to explain what sparked her desire to make the work.
“In many senses, this project is really a reflection of the club scene in New York,” Asherie said, “in that it grows out of something that’s very organic to all of us as club dancers. And that is our relationship with those who came before us and those who paved the way for us to be able to do what we can do. UNDERSCORED Is a reflection of this…the intersection of five generations of clubheads.”
Asherie and the company hold a deep reverence for their elders, three of whom are performers and collaborators in this work: Archie Burnett, Brahms “Bravo” LaFortune, and Michele Saunders, all club dance legends. Known for his individual freestyle of whacking/waacking and voguing, Burnett is the overall grandfather of the House of Ninja and is highly regarded as an underground club dance icon worldwide. “Bravo” LaFortune, also an eminent DJ , is known for his lightning-fast footwork style (what he names as freestyle jazz) and his flourishes of floor dives and spins. It is said that Saunders has been a trail-blazer ever since she first appeared on the scene and has also worked in the music, photography and fashion industries, leading her to the discovery of the legendary NYC dance club, the Paradise Garage.According to Asherie, UNDERSCORED is a reflection of the embodied movement conversations that happen night after night and generation after generation on dance floors across the five boroughs, from coast to coast and now all over the globe.
“UNDERSCORED is of course theater so it’s different from the club. It will never be the club, but it comes out of these relationships and out of the ethos of the club, which is what we live by as humans and artists,” Asherie said. She explained this ethos as one “where the collective consciousness celebrates each individual in the fullness of who they are.”When I asked about the different styles of the club scene that are represented in UNDERSCORED, Asherie stressed how important it was to her that this work is about her entire company who are all social dancers and who express themselves through and with various vernaculars including hip hop, breaking, house, vogue, hustle, whacking, popping and more.
“Everyone in the company has the ability to dance a multiplicity of styles, but each person simultaneously has one dance style that is in some way their heart motivator, their whole lifeline,” she said. “For example for me, it’s breaking and house, for Ms. Vee it’s funk styles and all of this can even change over time as we grow and shift as humans. Because we all came up listening to different kinds of music, we don’t limit ourselves to being just one kind of dancer. We are very dedicated to social dancing as freestyle dancers/improvisors and we also all happen to love creating and dancing together in the studio.” That is why Asherie says that she feels very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with a group of artists who enjoy working in many different communities of the dance world. “We’re happy partying together and we’re happy creating for hours and hours in the studio, making revisions and changes, growing the work and ourselves with every performance.”
It was when she got injured and began taking acting lessons that Asherie began thinking about becoming a choreographer. “I didn’t want to get the blues,” she said, “and we were doing a lot of writing. We had to write some personal monologues. We had various prompts and one of them was to talk about something that was impactful in your life.”
Asherie chose to write about how she grew up with four brothers, what that meant to her, what she loved about the experience and what were its challenges. “I remember when I was performing it for the class,” she explained, “all I could think about was this is a dance.”
That moment along with when one of her mentors, dancer and choreographer Gus Solomons, saw her as a choreographer. “He said to me you make dances and you know how to do it.” As only Gus could, he also gave Asherie simple but excellent advice which was to keep getting out of her own way.
Asherie explained to me that these dances are part of the continuum of dances from the African Diaspora— Black and Latine street and club dances—vernacular dances that are inherently narrative. “They are inherently about story and expression because of the history that they come from, because of the conditions under which they were created.” She continued to talk about how these dances move you to speak the truth about yourself, to reveal your strength as well as your vulnerability. “To me that is inherently narrative, no matter how abstract it is, it is a story,” she added.
She considers the dancers she knows and works with family, her dance family and her company grew out of asking some of them that she had danced with, partied with and battled with, if they were interested in being a part of a choreographic idea she had. “We were already connected together as dancers and now we all wanted to create work together,” Asherie said with a huge smile on her face. “It was like a beautiful dream.”
The first work that Asherie choreographed for her company was ten years ago and several of the dancers in this seminal work are performing in OVERSCORED.
For Asherie, UNDERSCORED straddles the line between dance, theater and oral history and of her many works, it is the one that uses as much text as movement. The text is an intersection of club-life storytelling from five generations of club dancers, or as they are known in the underground scene “club heads.”
The company is very excited to perform in Los Angeles explaining that both LA and NYC have played a major role in the expansiveness of the club dance culture.
Asherie and her company are extremely excited that dance artist d. Sabela Grimes will be moderating the company’s pre-show talk. An essential part of this work as it tours is to always connect with local street and club dancers so the sharing of stories is happening in multiple directions. She stressed how the history in LA is deep, beautiful and influential and that for her company it is a big deal for them to spend time and perform here. This is their big LA premiere and an opportunity that they do not take lightly.
The sound score for UNDERSCORED ranges from funk to disco, to house and hip hop, with visuals that include rarely seen archival club footage. “There are some real gems here that I feel so grateful that we can share with our audiences.”
“It shows like, wow, Archie and Bravo have been dancing together since the ’80 and ‘90s and they’re still able to perform some of that work on this show, and they’re killing it,” Asherie said.
There is also other archival footage in the show. One clip that they found is rare footage of Michelle Saunders at the seminal club Paradise Garage in New York. There is other archival film footage and photos that appear throughout the work. “There’s some real gems there that I feel so grateful that we even have access to.”
Asherie explained that one of the most challenging parts of creating UNDERSCORED with her very collaborative colleagues was the plethora of stories that ultimately could not be included in the work due to the time constraints and crafting of the work. She talked about the importance of finding the right way to honor all the fallen angels – the clubheads who are no longer here to tell their stories.
The history of club dancing is long and there were many losses during the 1980s due to the AIDS epidemic. “If I had my way,” Asherie said, there would be parts two, three, four, and five of UNDERSCORED. These are just some of the beautiful stories of an infinite number of beautiful stories, and beautiful human beings.”
For Asherie, this project lives in tandem with an oral history of club dance artists that will be housed at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. These are incredibly important and essential stories that need to be shared and preserved.
WHAT: Ephrat Asherie Dance
WHEN: Thursday, October 19, 2023 at 7:00 PM
WHERE: Bovard Auditorium, University of Southern California – 3551 Trousdale Parkway, Los Angeles, CA. 900089
TICKETS: Admission is free. Reservations required at https://bit.ly/VandV-UNDERSCORED
To learn more about Ephrat Asherie Dance, please visit their website.
To Learn more about the Bovard Auditorium, please visit their website.
Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Ephrat Asherie Dance – Cast of OVERSCORED (L-R) Matthew “Megawatt” West, Teena Marie Custer, Ephrat Asherie, Bravo “Brahms” LaFortune, Michelle Saunders, Archie Burnett, Valerie “Ms. Vee” Ho, Manon Bal, Ron “Stealth-1” Chunn – Photo by Lamont Richardson