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Baye & Asa's “The Bank.” Image courtesy of the artists

Dancing Together

Dance duo Baye & Asa on using dance as dialogue

Sam Pratt and Amadi Washington have been dancing together since they were ten years old. The dancer/choreographer duo known as Baye & Asa, who are 2021/22 Artists in Residence at the historic 92Y and have recently completed a commission with the Los Angeles-based Bodytraffic, met in elementary school as students at the prestigious Dalton School in New York City. Their first dance class together was in fifth grade.

“There was this West African class that we got to take when it became an option instead of gym class,” Pratt said.

“At the end of the year we did a performance, so that’s a big memory for us: in our white Ts and nice dress pants,” Washington said.

Jamal Jackson, a leading figure in modern African dance whose Brooklyn-based dance company has held an important presence in the field for almost 20 years, led the class, and it had a lasting impact on young Pratt and Washington. They continued studying African forms, and in high school, they started to explore other styles, particularly hip-hop dance. In and after their school classes, Pratt and Washington would find time to improvise together and with friends.

“We spent a lot of time improvising,” Pratt said. “A lot of time. It became like a ritual practice by the time we were seniors.”

After high school, they went separate ways to college: Washington went to the College of Wooster in Ohio, and Pratt went to Bard College in upstate New York (“both non-conservatory education!” Pratt emphasized). They were exposed to ballet and contemporary styles, and, being at liberal arts colleges, had access to a range of other disciplines, as well. Pratt double majored with dance and philosophy, and Washington’s major included theatre, in addition to dance classes. They maintained contact and visited each other regularly during breaks.

“We spent a lot of time dialoguing about the same things that would inform our future relationship as collaborators,” Washington said. “Because the work that we make now is often responding to something that is happening in society, those dialogues tend to be political or based in our individual identities.”

Baye and Asa in “Suck it Up.” Photograph by Richard Termine/92Y

In 2014, one of those dialogues developed into their first work together entitled “The First Seed,” which they began while attending the American Dance Festival in North Carolina. “The First Seed” is based on research surrounding D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist propaganda film, The Birth of a Nation.

“We wanted to respond directly to the film, and we made our first duet,” Washington said.

The piece, which “confronts the myth of Griffith’s ‘helpless white minority,’ and the cult of white-victimhood’s enduring impact on American polity” turned into an evening-length work with more dancers, and recently, Baye & Asa released an additional film development of the project, entitled “Second Seed.” In it, Washington and Pratt showcase an extraordinary theatrical energy that is both disturbing and beautiful.

“We are very different dancers, but we both know what the other person is interested in and we both know each other’s physicalities intimately,” Washington said. “We have different physical histories, but also similar training.”

In addition to dancing in high school, Washington was an athlete, running track and playing football—“star running-back,” Pratt clarified. Washington says this experience influences how he approaches his dancing.

“Sam has a different body type, like really long legs, open shoulder joints,” Washington said.  

“I’m way lankier than Amadi,” Pratt added. “I’m appreciative of how different our bodies are: I think it allows us to challenge ourselves and evolve.”

Both consider their identities as New Yorkers to be points of influence, as well.

“It’s walking through the subway on a crowded day, needing to take up space or needing to shut down in advance of someone who’s saying some wild shit to you. The energy of this place, the density of this place informs the way we interact with people, the way we carry ourselves,” Pratt said.

Baye and Asa in “Suck it Up.” Photograph by Richard Termine/92Y

The way in which they present themselves is striking, according to Bodytraffic artistic director Tina Berkett, who was immediately inspired when she saw their work “Second Seed.”  

“I was completely blown away by the clarity, intention, and emotion in their movement vocabulary,” Berkett said. “I found their work utterly captivating and truly innovative; I had this thought that they’d move the genre of contemporary dance forward.”

Berkett hired Baye & Asa for the duo’s first licensed commission and the resulting piece, “The One to Stay With,” had its world premiere at the Joyce Theater this past March.

“‘The One to Stay With’ is an important piece for Bodytraffic,” Berkett said. ”It shows the best of Sam and Amadi’s talents and also the best of our dancers’ abilities. It is layered, complex, bold, entertaining, intimate, and thought provoking—I love it from top to bottom and I can’t wait to share it around the world.”

Similar to their work responding to “The Birth of a Nation,” “The One to Stay With” is a highly researched piece of choreography inspired by contemporary social issues. Based on the book Empire of Pain by journalist Patrick Radden Keefe, which tells the story of the wealthy Sackler family who founded Purdue Pharma and is currently being sued for their role in the opioid epidemic, the piece uses this particular narrative, as well as addresses broader themes of capitalism and corporate greed.

“We usually start with primary source material,” Pratt said. “We try to create a body of research around that, and then create movement that is not improvisational but based on that research. We try to make movement choices that have more to do with the idea we are exploring versus our aesthetic opinions or propensities.”

“We studied a lot of African and hip-hop growing up, but we were definitely trained to choreograph for the concert stage,” Washington added. “We spent a lot of time with postmodern choreographic techniques, and a lot of modern, established “deities” that we still look towards today.” (Speaking of “modern dance deities,” Baye & Asa’s next licensed commission will be for the Martha Graham Dance Company in the spring of 2023).

In terms of their own work: ”We like to say ‘post-contemporary’,” Pratt said.

“It’s a joke that we like to make with each other,” Washington said. “We have influences from all of these places and use them in a way that is exciting for us.”

Those influences range from their early classes with Jamal Jackson to their independent work as dancers with the likes of Kyle Abraham and Akram Khan (for Pratt), David Dorfman and Andrea Miller (for Washington). For Baye & Asa, it is not establishing an aesthetic that is important, so much as what the aesthetic is leading to, “which, for us, is these political dialogues,” Pratt said.

“We’re thinking about these ideas and we want to comment on these ideas, but we also look at the fact that we are . . . dancers. And how is dance both perfectly positioned to talk about these things and also how is it inherently not the way to address these things in the real world,” Pratt said.

“As a dancer, it’s hard to always feel that what you’re doing is important,” Washington said. “We are just dancing. But at the same time, art spaces are some of the best spaces to hold important discussions.

“We want to strive to show you the importance of the ideas that we work with and that often comes out in an aggressiveness in the physicality. We often make the joke, when we are leading up to a performance, that we are not in shape enough for our own work. Three quarters of the way through, we’re panting so hard; we’re ready to throw up in the middle of the piece, and there is something that is masochistic about it. But there is also something about us that wants to have that level of intensity because it demonstrates a commitment. The aggression in our physicalities is a way of implicating ourselves in the narrative,” Washington said.