Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Ben Asriel: A Shift at the Right Time

Ben Asriel
(photo courtesy of Kevin Kwan)

A Shift at the Right Time

by Evan Teitelbaum

      “I like playing second fiddle. But I still like having a fiddle.” Ben Asriel laughs playfully, but he’s pointing out a critical aspect of his work as a dancer. He dances for choreographers who use their dancers’ individual qualities and choices to shape the work, giving Ben a sense of ownership over his art even when he is not the sole creator of the piece.

      He expresses gratitude for those creative relationships, for having had the opportunity to make his mark with choreographers such as John Jasperse, Juliana May and Walter Dundervill, as he shifts his focus to a radically different endeavor. This coming semester, Ben will leave his life as a full-time performer behind him, becoming a full-time student at Columbia with his sights set on medical school. He feels ready. In his own words, his “‘Benness’ has been used and expressed in a full way” through dance.

      We are squeezed onto a loveseat in the studio apartment he shares with his boyfriend Brian on a tree-lined street in the West Village. I prod him to take a stab at defining this “Benness.” Foregoing a surface description of style, he distills what about dancing has fascinated him the most: the object-subject split. A central paradox of being a dancer, as I see it, is that the dancer is simultaneously a body-object being observed, and a subjectivity communicating his experience. By way of illustration, Ben takes me into his process with Dundervill: “We’ve done a lot of work on being an object and being a shape and being aesthetically beautiful and very kind of Apollonian, but at the same time existing within the piece as yourself and noting your experience and also projecting that subjective experience of what it is to objectify. And that, I really love that.”

      It’s a dizzying explanation, but fortunately I understand exactly what he means because I’ve witnessed it in real time. In a performance of Dundervill’s Aesthetic Destiny 1: Candy Mountain that I saw at what was then Dance Theater Workshop (now New York Live Arts), Ben and Burr Johnson performed a duet of shared shape-shifting. Maintaining contact on the surface of their bodies, they created symmetrical forms of sloping curves and defined angles. This meticulous shape-making objectified the body to an extreme, forcing it to conform to geometry over anatomy. The atmosphere, however, was thick with the awareness it took to move so precisely. The sensitivity to the other that was required to maintain connection textured the undertaking with a palpable vulnerability.

      Ben’s approach to performance stems equally from his childhood in Glasgow, Kentucky and his graduate study at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts (which turns out to be much less of a culture clash than you might think). Ben’s mother (“brilliant,” “cultured,” and “bad-ass”) taught dance at a local studio and did nothing to discourage Ben’s interest in his body. Her creative movement classes for kids involved “lying on the floor imagining things,” which Ben notes prepared him well for the type of class work you might find at a Movement Research offering. Ben keeps a video of himself dancing in his grandparents’ backyard as a child and says,“what I was doing there was very me. It was something I could do now.”

      I try to picture this childhood improvisation, this early uncovering of “Benness,” and wonder what it was like for a quirky, artistic boy to grow up in a small Kentucky town. For Ben, the smallness of the community actually provided plenty of space. In small towns, he explains, “there’s a lot that happens outside of the norm but, because everyone knows each other, it’s almost unnoticed in a way.” Familiarity rendered potential bullies unintimidating. They’d all grown up together.

      Arriving in New York at 22, Ben sought to recreate the comfort of knowing everyone. Faced with a tight community that he didn’t have automatic entrée to and initially frustrated that he didn’t have a seat at “the cool kids’ lunch table”, he used his post at the Dance Theater Workshop box office to scope the scene. Now, asked how he has gotten work with some of the more visible scene-shapers of downtown dance, Ben shrugs, “I just have friends who make work, and I dance for them.”

      But something is shifting for him now. Curiosity fueled his exploration, and he’s not interested in performing with a quality that has become “known.” His essential “Benness” needs to maintain its vitality. “I don’t want it to ossify within me, “ he says. “ I don’t want it to become a thing inside me that’s stale. That people can hire…I feel like performing it feels like controlling it where it used to feel like releasing it.”

      Ben’s readiness to leave dance is also a comment on the lack of support for the arts. Ben admits: “I always felt selfish dancing. Or not always. That was something I fought and I think a lot of people fight. The idea that the culture gives us that making art is somehow selfish. Which it isn’t. It’s essential. And it’s generous and it is definitely a sacrifice to live an artist’s life more than it is to do lots of other things.” Despite Ben’s conviction, fighting this cultural disregard takes a toll.

      By choosing medicine as his next venture, Ben is not abandoning the fight. He will take his experience as an artist into his approach towards medicine. “I felt really disenfranchised by the medical community as a dancer, not having health insurance. And so I guess I want to change it from the inside.” His transition back to school also speaks to the seriousness of his relationship of two years. He and Brian flirt with ideas of how to create a more stable future together without, of course, ruling out the possibility of “just staying crazy.”

      Ben is excited to talk about Brian, his eyes brightening as he tells me about Brian’s culinary gifts. I brace myself for envy as I await a mouth-watering anecdote about an unforgettable meal this culinary school graduate prepared in some early stage of their courtship. Instead, Ben talks about how Brian watched food being cooked as a child and would “not just see it browning, but like he understood what it meant to be like a molecule of the food as it was cooking.” As Ben is speaking, I again find myself picturing little Ben dancing in his grandparents’ yard. I am struck by the sense that Ben and Brian’s younger selves shared this nonverbal curiosity –an intuitive, embodied way of tapping into things.

      The small but airy apartment they now share feels just right for two creative entities contemplating how they might fit themselves more neatly into a less precarious lifestyle, but without being in any big hurry to do so. Although Ben apologizes for the gentle cascade of worn socks, books left out of place, and crumbs on counters, I am warmed by the lived-in state of things.

      I ask Ben if he’s been seeing a lot of art lately, and he says no.

      “I feel a little out of touch with what’s happening and that feels okay. I don’t feel the need to, like, get in touch.” At 32, he’s expressing a very different attitude than the 22-year old angling for a spot at the downtown dance table.

      “I’m kind of looking forward to being a spectator or maybe a funder, or having some other role in dance—”

      “Or health care provider,” I suggest.


Ben Asriel grew up in Glasgow, Kentucky where he cultivated his love of art in his mother’s dance classes, on the soccer field, and playing trumpet in the GHS band. He studied music theory at Brown University (AB Music ’03) and dance at NYU Tisch (MFA ’06). In addition to MAYDANCE, Ben dances with Walter Dundervill, and Liz Gerring Dance Company. Ben has also performed with Gerald Casel, Daria Faïn, Jack Ferver, Gabriel Forestieri, John Jasperse, Antonio Ramos, Edisa Weeks, and Pavel Zustiak, among others. In 2010/2011 Ben was a Choreographic Fellow of NYCB’s New York Choreographic Institute, supported by Oregon Ballet Theater. His dances have been presented by CPR - Center for Performance Research, the Chocolate Factory Theater, Dance New Amsterdam, Movement Research at the Judson Church, The Tank, and Danspace Project. He is currently enrolled in Columbia University’s postbac premed program. Tell him what you think: basriel@gmail.com

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