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Off the EDGE at Westside Cultural Arts Center steps out with courage, humor

Three distinct Atlanta voices — plus a New York-based company that’s making waves nationally — appeared in last Friday evening’s double feature at the Westside Cultural Arts Center as part of Off the EDGE contemporary dance festival’s fourth iteration. Varied works spanned topics ranging from youthful self-discovery to semi-jaded dating advice and from the depths of sorrow to the triumph of human resilience.

At the Westside’s garage-turned-trendy-theater, the Atlanta-based groups ImmerseATL and Fly on a Wall, as well as choreographer Blake Beckham, offered divergent approaches and viewpoints, but they shared a common motif: confronting the unknown then choosing to take a focused and purposeful step forward. New York-based Ephrat Asherie Dance capped the evening with a message of joy and transcendence.

ImmerseATL is a recently formed program that serves as a bridge for young dancers to enter the professional world of contemporary dance in Atlanta. Frame shift, by program founder Sarah Hillmer, seemed to reflect its performers’ lives as young artists in transition, facing both internal doubt and an adversarial world on a journey toward self-discovery.

In a dimly lit space, six young women in individualized black garments advanced in various directions, a red sidelight heightening their body contours to the drone of electronic music. They stepped tentatively into the space, arms held in front of their bodies, fingertips softly sensing the air, as if feeling their way through darkness. Though their eyes were cast downward, it felt as if the surfaces of their skin emanated vulnerability and receptiveness — a fascinating quality of stage movement.

They explored the space, experimenting with different body shapes and configurations. As eerie music darkened the atmosphere, they drew together — gazing out at the audience, bravely blazing their personal essences.

Solo dancers began to burst from a group nucleus. Individually, they gathered the surrounding darkness close. At one point, two came together, their hands cupped around an invisible ball of energy. Elsewhere, dancers seemed to hold larger balls of energy, which then seemed to ripple through their torsos and stream through their limbs — fluctuating from fluid to explosive to still yet energized. These were tender moments of venturing into the unknown and, in a way that was delicate and courageous, radiating potentiality.

Byte, Fly on a Wall’s quick-quipped commentary on the intricacies of interpersonal relationships, received a second reprise after its success last fall during the Uncaged Dance Festival. In its own tongue-in-cheek way, Byte plunged into the conundrum of the individual who seeks true human connection — producing a kind of three-way salsa, driven by desires for intimacy and acceptance but thwarted by the kind of insecurities that send people careening past the very connections they crave.

Dressed in grey business suits with red-orange mesh shirts underneath (an anonymous cover for a passionate inner nature, perhaps) performers Erin Rauch, Jimmy Joyner and Nathan Griswold moved through a series of flash episodes that skirted clichés, each time slipping into another sly vignette.

Toward the end, the work turned to a dark, interior moment, when all came into question. As Joyner rolled on the floor and folded his body like a crumpled piece of paper, the recorded voice of Fly on a Wall cofounder Nicole Johnson said, “I walk through mine fields. I can take a step, or not.” She later spoke of finding something new, something that feels good. She said, “Just like that, I take the right step.”

The evening’s second concert began with No End or Return, by Blake Beckham, a longtime proponent of Atlanta’s independent choreography scene. “Thrust into collapse and lodged in time, Beckham inhabits a world remade with each breath,” read Beckham’s description. The 25-minute solo felt like one long, painful sob.

Composer Joanie Ferguson’s score reinforced this feeling, beginning with the lonely sound of a phonograph needle circling a record after its songs have played, a crackly silence interrupted by the pop of a noisy scratch. The minimalist composition gained volume and magnitude until it sounded like a giant overpowering piston moving up and down, or a respirator forcing a dying person to breathe.

From earthbound postures, Beckham moved with mechanistic and deliberately inorganic motions. She repeatedly chopped the air and flung her body in arcs, hair whipping, as if trapped inside a feedback loop of compulsive behavior, until she had beaten herself down to a state of physical and emotional exhaustion. Beckham’s movement quality has a warm texture, and one hoped for more sense of release. In the end, she stood up, exhausted but resolute, and took one step forward. The moment offered relief, but not enough.

Ephrat Asherie’s Odeon joined local companies at the Westside Cultural Arts Center. (Photos by Brian Wallenberg)

There is no better antidote to Beckham’s solo than a pair of excerpts from Ephrat Asherie’s joyous Odeon (performed at greater length on Saturday) and the transcendent Riff This, Riff That, dedicated to victims of the 2016 Orlando shooting, with a caveat that “only by remaining positive and united can we fight hate.”

And Asherie’s choreography does just that. The group of accomplished performers — with different body types, different dance and ethnic backgrounds — lifted the spirits through Asherie’s seamless blend of street and club dance styles. Breaking’s intricate floor work met the fast arm motions of waacking and the stylish precision of vogueing. These blended with elements of swing dancing, Latin hustle and polyrhythmic Orisha dances of West Africa with breathtaking speed, soulful undertones and an overriding sense of joy. In Riff This, Riff That, Asherie was ecstatic and triumphant, as a jazz melody percolated through her body. Then, opening her arms out to either side, it felt as if she rose up in flight.

Asherie and her company caught a plane out of Atlanta on Sunday morning, leaving the rest of us to consider whether or not, in light of Leslie Gordon’s recent departure from her position as director of Georgia State University’s Rialto Center for the Arts — the primary funder of this year’s festival — Off the EDGE can and should continue.

Whatever the outcome, Friday’s concert illuminated facets of a community searching for — and wrestling with — its identity in order to cautiously, but inevitably, take the right step forward.