Ephrat Asherie brings NYC street dance scene down Rocky Mountain way

Born in Israel, raised in NY, Asherie uses West African movement to process her own multinational background

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Ephrat Asherie Dance performing 'Odeon' at the 2022 Vail Dance Festival in Beaver Creek, Colorado on July 31, 2022. (Courtesy: Christopher Duggan)
Ephrat Asherie Dance performing 'Odeon' at the 2022 Vail Dance Festival in Beaver Creek, Colorado on July 31, 2022. (Courtesy: Christopher Duggan)

BEAVER CREEK, Colorado — Ephrat Asherie and her four fellow dancers battled, shuffled and locked onstage, alternating between joy and sorrow, street battles and soulful moves, bringing the feel of a New York City street dance to Vail Dance Festival, the two-week event held July 29 through August 9 in the Rocky Mountains.

For an hour and a half in late July, Asherie and her squad, along with their band of four musicians, brought “Odeon,” to a nearly full audience at the Vilar Performing Arts Center.

“Odeon” is the second collaboration between sibling team Ephrat and Ehud Asherie, the troupe’s musical director.

Set to the music of fin-de-siecle Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth combining samba and other popular Afro-Brazilian rhythms, the dancers offer an introduction to street dance and social dance, and what feels like a glimpse of an impromptu dance performed on a New York City subway platform.

This was art taking place onstage, as the dancers —  Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie, Manon Bal, Teena Marie Custer, Valerie “Ms. Vee” Ho and Omari Wiles — found their own grooves, taking their exploration of this modern dance form back to its ancient, West African roots, albeit dressed in sneakers and striped training pants, with the occasional sequined arm sleeves donned by Wiles for decoration.

“No matter how abstract the works get, it feels eternally connected to that and New York City,” said Asherie, the troupe’s founder and choreographer, as well as one of the dancers.

The New York City-based choreographer is at the core of this forging of American and Latin street and social styles, showing what happens onstage with the extended family of street and club dances, which can include breaking, hip hop, house and vogue.

Ephrat Asherie, the Israeli-born founder and choreographer for Ephrat Asherie Dance that performed in August 2022 at Vail Dance in Colorado. (Courtesy: Matthew Murphy)

It seems a somewhat unlikely art form for the Israeli-born dancer whose family moved to Italy when she was ten months old and then to Larchmont, New York for her father’s career.

Yet Asherie has been involved with dance and hip hop since she was 10, connecting with the underground scene and community that embodies a “come as you are” character.

In a conversation following the July 31 performance, Asherie mused that she was probably connecting back then with those who were also American and from other nationalities, also dealing with the tensions and dualities of being multinational and multifaceted.

“It’s something I’ve always connected to,” said Asherie, a Barnard College graduate who researched the vernacular jazz dance roots of contemporary street and club dances for her MFA from the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee. “My homies, my friends, my community embodies that.”

Asherie grew up speaking Hebrew, although she now regrets not speaking — or reading — her mother tongue as well as she’d like to. Her Israeli background and culture was eclipsed by her fascination with New York and street dance, and she remembers not wanting to miss the new music releases on the radio due to family trips to Israel in the summers.

“I was such a fan, and there was no Spotify then,” she said. “When you’re a kid, you’re just kind of drawn to things and later as an adult, you try to understand it.”

The club parties she attended as a teen and young adult were “all about that,” said Asherie.

She met some of her fellow dancers through the breakdance scene, remembers “battling” Omari at an event and has been performing with Ms. Vee and Teena Custer for the last decade.

“We are really a squad, we have a real familiar vibe,” said Asherie of her troupe. “Some of us are breaking as part of our dance lineage, but all under the auspices of connecting in this other, deeper way.”

Omari Wiles and Angel Lau in ‘Odeon’ by Ephrat Asherie Dance performing at the 2022 Vail Dance Festival in Beaver Creek, Colorado on July 31, 2022. (Courtesy: Christopher Duggan)

There are usually six dancers in “Odeon” —  Matthew “Megawatt” West was missing from the July 31 performance due to illness — which required a “real reorganization” of the Vail Dance show, said Asherie.

“We have performed it a lot and it always shifts a little bit when you work with live music, but this was next level,” said Asherie.

“Odeon” was performed previously at New York’s Joyce Theater and at Jacob’s Pillow in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, as well as on tour.

The musicians, Eduardo Belo, Angel Lau, Ben Rosenblum and Jeremy Smith, are mostly set up on the side of the stage throughout the performance, although Asherie does grab Brazilian coconuts during one section and there are other moments when each of the four musicians merge and move with the dancers.

The piece acts as an introduction for audiences who aren’t familiar with street dance and social dance, particularly in the unlikely surroundings of the Rocky Mountains.

Asherie wants the work to encourage audiences to ask questions about the style of dance, the relationship between what’s performed onstage and its roots in tribal movement, as well as gender fluidity and expression, all of which are present in the performed pieces.

“My sincere hope is that the work is moving because of its roots in ancient, West African movement — there’s a lot of soulfulness there,” said Asherie.

And while Asherie herself is not West African, she mines her own familial connections through music and dance, looking to process her own family’s history and Jewish lineage.

“I think those of us who are lucky can use music and dance to process that,” said Asherie. “As I get older, I think about it more and more — how did I get here? What would have happened if I’d stayed in Israel or Italy?”

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