Ritual dances in the dark

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Brianna Taylor (left) and Ashlee Ramsey scratch charcoal patterns during “Depth Measures.”
Brianna Taylor (left) and Ashlee Ramsey scratch charcoal patterns during “Depth Measures.”

by Chris Nafekh

Dissonant piano crashed in the night. Atop a long, white paper board, Ashlee Ramsey and Brianna Taylor lay prostrate, charcoal smudged their faces, feet and hands. Waving her hands around her body, dragging charcoal like nails on chalk, Ramsey blackened the white board below her with circles and swift, oscillated crescents until a dark and dirty snow angel took shaped around her. Taylor rolled on the opposite end, turning and twisting, scratching the charcoal around herself to form a chaotic, cryptic grid. The two women, both yoga instructors by day, performed a ritual of mystery and duality.

“Depth Measures,” performed on Aug. 21, was the last in a series entitled Rituals: An Evening of Dance and Music at the Milton Rhodes Arts Center in Winston-Salem. The dance, choreographed by Amy Love Beasley, experimented with special elements of movement and dimension.

The concepts of depth and duality prevailed throughout Beasley’s work. In the end, Ramsey and Taylor’s three-dimensional movements had been recorded on the white board; evidence of fluidity and chaos was mapped by their movement.

The show began at sundown, as an orange cream sky lit the third floor windows at the arts center. Middle-aged men in sweater vests shuffled into the room alongside women who smelled abundantly of herbal remedies.

Periwinkle curtains hung from the rafters, a minimalist set for the first performance. To the left sat a grand piano; the black and white keys sullenly waiting to be played, beckoning the oncoming performance.

The doors closed and the set darkened. Eric Schwartz, whose music has been performed across the world from New York City to Melbourne, Australia, took his seat at the keyboard and played a soft impromptu. His lightly distant piano waves rose and fell, trilling gladness and breaking emotion. A deep bass momentarily contrasted ephemeral high keys, and soon Cara Hagan entered the stage for the evening’s opening performance.

Hagan, a former student at UNC School of the Arts who now teaches dance at Appalachian State University, performed a dance she choreographed titled “Ritual of 100 Tiny Circles.” Like most pieces of choreography, “Rituals” tells a story, except this one is non-linear. According to Hagan, the dance doesn’t present a clear beginning, middle or ending.

“It’s a narrative but not in a storybook kind of way,” Hagan said. “There’s about 100 haikus that go with this dance that I wrote as a student.”

Hagan’s former dance teacher at UNCSA presented her with a multitude of simple rituals and asked her to name them.

“I named them different things like, ‘ritual of respiration,’ which is circular, ‘ritual of apology and forgiveness,’ ‘witnessing the seasons’…” she said. “They’re insights that came out of the studio and from being in the studio. It didn’t happen in a linear way, it’s been very puzzle-like and a lot of the times my process is very puzzle piece-y.”

As Hagan walked into the spotlight, her gray uniform shimmered. Soft, broken piano echoed in the chamber, and Hagan slowly raised her hands. Suspense rose with every moment, her concentration building until her hands reached above her head. With a crouch, she slapped her knees and began to step, jump and spin around the stage. The piano picked up as her interpretive dance swiftly sped, her muscles flexed and her breath grew louder. Surefooted, Hagan never missed a step.

Between dances, pianists Peter Kairoff and Louis Goldstein played classical compositions by Debussy and Bach.

“It is said that music dances, or sings, or both,” Kairoff said as he approached the piano. “I think it’s safe to say there’s no composer in music history who dances and sings as magnificently, and in such a balanced way, as the composer we’re about to hear from: JS Bach. His music has a rhythmic vitality and a melodic inventiveness that is seemingly inexhaustible.”

As Kairoff played Bach’s English Suite in G-minor, the melodies intermingled, repeated and chased each other across the keyboard.

Before the Ramsey and Taylor walked on the dark stage to finish the evening with “Depth Measures,” Louis Goldstein played Claude Debussy’s impressionist “Three Preludes.” From Goldstein’s fingers into the warmth of night air flowed Debussy’s enchanting melodies which could hypnotize the audience into dreaming, lost in thought and darkness.

Soon after, Ramsay and Taylor walked onto the black stage with clean hands and clear faces. Goldstein tapped tortured keys in the distance as they unraveled a white poster which, within minutes, became an obscured map of ritual dance, duality and darkness.