When meeting Aven Ascher, you first notice her soft voice, sweet and slow, her blonde hair that sweeps across her cheeks and her pale blue eyes that dance like her feet. The 26-year old has the grace that every dancer seems to be born with: she’s tall and all long, lean muscle. Her voice pitches higher when she gets excited, using her hands to express what she’s saying. She evokes a sense of calm in people, like maybe she has everything under control and you don’t have to worry. But there’s another side to Ascher. Onstage, all her inhibitions disappear. Her hips swing sensually, her back arches in strange angles and her face shows little of the calm, composed woman that stood before you minutes before. Onstage, she is a different person.
On Thursday, April 26, Ascher performed for the final time at Mills, ending her undergraduate dance studies with a piece she’d been working on all year, in a discipline she has been working on her whole life.
Ascher was born in Kansas, but with a soft laugh she’ll explain that she was raised in Santa Barbara, Calif. Until she was 14, she moved between multiple foster homes, sometimes living with her biological brother, Ben Donovan.
Ascher’s official dancing days began when she was 11, at her first ballet class.
Aven got into a pre-professional company when she was 16, the Santa Barbara Festival Ballet Company.
After graduating from high school, she didn’t want to go to college right away.
She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life, and she didn’t want to waste the limited financial aid she received from the state on finding out. So she moved to Los Angeles instead, where she taught children dance. After her time in Los Angeles, Ascher went back to Santa Barbara to attend community college. Two years later, she decided to go to Humboldt State but transferred to Mills after a year.
Speaking methodically, she explains why dance appealed to her so much. “I didn’t really have a stable family life,” she said. “Dance has kind of been that stability for me and that consistent thing in my life.”
Although she has been trained in ballet for years, Ascher prefers modern dance.
“Ballet is too confining for me,” she said. “It doesn’t feel expressive enough.”
That need for expression was obvious during her thesis performance, which involved a group and solo piece. The title was “Transpace,” and it dealt with the different transitions that people go through during their lives.
“I personally have always felt that I’ve been in transition in some way,” says Ascher.
The idea of transition came to her one day last semester when she noticed the three-way stop on the Mills campus, the convergence of Kapiolani and Richards roads. She looked at the roads and the row of trees. What is the function of this space? she asked herself. She thought about the ways in which students transition from one class to the next and how they get there. Do they cross the sidewalk? Or go across the grass? Sometimes people go across grass and it eventually gets patted down into a new path. “The paths there are not necessarily exactly right for everyone.”
Her group piece included students from the Mills community doing a series of moves she gave to them. However, the order of the moves was entirely up to students, causing a strange sense of ordered chaos when it was performed during intermission out on the roads that originally inspired the dancer. Adding to the chaos was Mills student Legs Kraus, performing Butoh in drag.
“[Butoh] is a physical manifestation of, I want to say, an internal struggle . but it’s a little more gruesome in a way.”
Donovan constructed a banana peel that was set up on one of the roads during the performance. Ascher wanted a banana peel in her piece to symbolize humor. She admits that she has a tendency to take things a little too seriously. However, when it comes to dance, she prefers a more easy-going, fluid style.
“It really bothers me when dance is taken so seriously,” she said, her voice dipping low and dramatic, but with the same twinkle of fun in her eyes.That twinkle is something her brother knows well.
“She had this wonderful ability of staying out of trouble that I was terribly envious of,” Donovan said, remembering Ascher as a child. His face visibly changes when he is asked about his sister. He smiles and gushes, “I think everybody should know everything about her . that’s how great she is.”
Donovan explained that his sister is “quietly” daring. This daring can be seen during the solo component of her thesis, called “Play Back.”
Aven said that during the dance her back was “more prevalent” than her front to the audience, in order to express the idea that things are still a little unstable no matter what happens in her life.”[It symbolizes that] what’s behind me is still in front of me.”
In front of Ascher next is her graduation, a major accomplishment in her family. “I’m the first person in my biological family to graduate from college,” she said. “It’s like a huge event, not just for me but for the history that came with me.”
Her biological siblings will be there and they will be able to meet the family she has made for herself at Mills.
“My graduation day is not just about me . it’s about my family connecting and getting to talk to each other.”