Ashani Dances at The Baltimore Theatre Project by Andrew Sargus Klein

I have seen Edward Hopper’s paintings invoked as an inspiration for a number of written works, as well as visual arts. The great American painter’s work is an evergreen portal for exploration and narrative. His figures, mostly white women, are enigmatic and often captured in silence and in private. Sometimes they’re trapped in a square of sunlight, or framed by a window. A sense of voyeurism pervades the experience. Their expressions convey something universal and human while also concealing. The mystery is forever; it’s no wonder his images are so writer friendly.

The thought of using Hopper’s work as a starting point for dance—and in particular contemporary ballet—is a tantalizing prospect. The paintings are static, brooding things; contemporary ballet is athletic and form-driven. Ashani Dances, a Seattle-born company that moved to Baltimore last year, kicked off their relocation to Charm City with Love Me, Now Leave Me Alone at the Baltimore Theatre Project October 14-16.

Billed as “a collection of dance vignettes that take inspiration from five Edward Hopper paintings and provides the audience with a voyeuristic glimpse into the lives of seven city dwellers,” the performance was, for better and for worse, a much more liberal interpretation of Hopper’s work than I expected.

ashani-dances-sedentary-photo-credit-rob-ferrellAshani Dances: “Sedentary”; Dancers: Kelton Roth & Iyun Ashani Harrison, Photo credit: Rob Ferrell

The work began with a few traditional balletic tropes. The dancers were introduced and the evening’s choreography sketched out in an orderly fashion, though this concept was slightly influenced by his Afro-Caribbean fusion in that it was performed within a circle of other dancers in a sort of round robin style (though the dancers in the middle all still faced downstage/the audience).

At the back of the stage, on the floor, was a single light pointed up and slightly toward the audience. It was a perfect placement for dramatic shadows and backlit bodies—a sort of extreme version of Hopper’s brushwork. The light would be used repeatedly throughout the performance as a consistently beautiful asset.

The movers segued into the first vignette, perhaps the most obvious Hopper tribute. Iyun Ashani Harrison (the company’s founder and artistic director) performed a short, patient solo in a square of light. Within the small space allotted, Harrison’s movements were compact but tender, expansive even, setting the stage for the night’s more intimate moments. The sensual duet that followed, featuring Harrison and Tarik Darrel O’Meally and Alice Smith’s stunning cover of “I Put a Spell on You,” stayed in that same intimate and physical space.

By this point it felt as if the work was inverting the voyeuristic heterosexuality of Hopper’s paintings by featuring men so prominently and so intimately. It was these moments that leapt out to me as the most compelling of the night, a way to take the painter’s solemn intimacy and infuse it with bodies full of blood and sweat-breath. But these vignettes were inspired by the iconic painter; they weren’t in direct conversation with him, and there were several sections of the work that were far beyond any sort of world that felt related to Hopper.

“Lost Glances,” featuring Shanice L. Mason and LaTeisha Melvin, was an overly theatrical duet of either unrequited or misunderstood love. While exuberant, and executed with technical brilliance, it was aesthetically jarring coming off the opening solo and duet. It was similar in style to a later vignette, “Dreamer.” A woman holding a couple of balloons and dancing joyfully and playfully (Kira Anderson) is noticed and pursued and fought over by two men (O’Meally and Kelton Roth). It’s about as tired a narrative trope as it gets, and felt even more out of place than “Lost Glances.”

ashani-dances-excursion-photo-credit-rob-ferrell-jpgAshani Dances: “Excursion”; Dancers: Babette DeLafayette Pendleton & Kelton Roth, Photo credit: Rob Ferrell

“Excursion,” another duet, returned to the murkier, complicated relationship dynamics I found so effective. Babette DeLafayette and Roth’s vignette made great use of the light at the back of the stage. Their haunting, strange duet included pulling their shirts over their heads as they grappled and embraced in a steady weaving of bodies. The dramatic lighting had a sculptural effect, creating art within art.

To top it off, the score was a heartbreaking and powerful poem by Warsan Shire—although the poem was repeated for no discernible reason, and portions of their choreography were clearly repetitive with little variation. That said, choreography and score were paired perfectly, unfortunately emphasizing several moments throughout the night where the music, while excellently curated, was the only cue the audience had to follow the emotional narratives.

The performers’ technical abilities were incredible, no doubt, but the choreographic pacing was steady and nonstop. There was little room to pause and reflect or to explore a sequence outside of what had already been established. This dynamic meant that the music, often dramatic, string-heavy pieces in this case, carried the weight of the vignette.

Perhaps the most surprising moment came after “Excursion.” A seamless segue set up a short, lovely solo by LaTeisha Melvin on the stairs at Theatre Project. Bathed in rectangle of light similar to the opening solo, the vignette’s choreography might have referenced the same sequences we saw all night, but the surprise of the staging and lighting gave those movements a new and substantive life.

As evidenced by this performance and many other inspired projects, Edward Hopper’s work is a rabbit hole. It will continue to invite exploration, and Love Me, Now Leave Me Alone is an important reminder that dance is a powerfully responsive tool, one that has the power to delve deeply, and then go beyond, visual work like Hopper’s. Despite some of the nights’ misfires, there were beautiful, breathtaking glimpses of intimacy and melancholy, love and despair: all Hopper-esque, but also universal and evergreen.

*****

Author Andrew Sargus Klein is a Baltimore poet and performer. He kinda-sorta tweets at ASargusKlein

Ashani Dances is Baltimore’s newest dance company. Their debut performance in Baltimore was hosted at the Baltimore Theatre Project on October 14, 15, and 16.