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By Eva Yaa Asantewaa
Yes, Aszure Barton can show you a truckload of impressive reviews. Yes, she has Mikhail Baryshnikov’s blessing. And tackling the Brecht-Weill musical Threepenny Opera, with stars like Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper, has landed her street cred on the Great White Way. Plus there’s a list of high-profile commissions that’s longer than any 30-something choreographer could possibly hope for. (That growing list includes National Ballet of Canada, Baryshnikov’s Hell’s Kitchen Dance, and Benjamin Millepied’s pickup company.) Everyone wants to know how this confident young woman suddenly burst on the scene with her original and haunting visions.
But Barton has been working towards this day since she was a Dr. Seuss–reading, Nutcracker-loving kid in Edmonton, Alberta, an artistic gang leader with Cherice and Charissa Barton—her two adored older sisters—riding shotgun. Once a track-and-field champion, the top high jumper in Alberta’s Catholic schools, she’s now an award-winning dancemaker based in New York with her own troupe, Aszure & Artists, founded in 2002.
Barton grew up in a close-knit family that supported one another’s aspirations, honoring challenge, honesty, and creativity. Encouraged by a mother who had longed to be a ballerina, the Barton girls studied just about every form of dance available, starting with tap and excelling at ballet. “I’ve made dances from when I was about 4 and 5,” says Aszure. “And not just dances but plays and little films.”
Cherice recalls, “We’d get all the kids in the neighborhood and stage full-on productions—outdoors, indoors, on the street, in the car. We have videos of Aszure dancing with a frying pan, flipping eggs. We’d be inspired by pretty much anything.” Every year, their mom would ask if they wanted to continue taking dance classes, and all three would happily re-enlist.
Aszure trained at the Edmonton School of Ballet, Alberta Ballet School, Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and the John Cranko School in Germany. If her parents had misgivings when their 14-year-old set out for Toronto and the National Ballet School, they nevertheless gave unwavering support. It would have been futile to try to step between this child and destiny.
Barton graduated from the NBS, going on to perform with its prestigious parent company, the National Ballet of Canada, and Montreal’s [bjm_danse] (formerly Ballets Jazz de Montréal), where she is now a resident choreographer. In addition to appearing and touring with other ensembles, she spent five years in New York with Wendy Osserman’s contemporary dance company. Osserman remembers Barton’s appetite for improvisation, tricky movement problems, and seeking solutions beyond the conventions of her ballet and jazz training. “Aszure was always a full-out performer, even in rehearsals,” Osserman says. “She’s the kind of dramatic dancer I appreciate because of the range she has from humor to emotional intensity, which you can also see in her choreography.”
“I’d worked with a ton of choreographers and have that vocabulary in my body,” Barton says, “but people like Wendy allowed me to feel ugly and uncomfortable and to access different aspects of myself.”
That’s key to understanding Barton’s own complex work. The dance—and every single body in it—can seem like a three-ring circus. Each piece leaps at you from every direction, less a single entity than a batch of different dances clamoring for attention: vulnerable and feisty, brightly adept yet peculiar, witty and impetuously wild. In Over/Come, created during her 2005 residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center and premiered in 2006, Barton splits space into movable sectors, each with its own enigmatic and riveting mini-drama.
Over/Come opens big. A baker’s dozen of dancers spread out across the floor, each one resting, crouching, balancing, or stretching within his or her specific patch of space. Eventually, these separate people will move as a coordinated chorus for a time but, even then, they will do so with vivid individuality, no two dancers alike. Barton’s choreography, with its live-wire movement set to quirky scrapbooks of eclectic music, aims to reveal the multiple personalities within each dancer. It lays out the full, earthy banquet of pleasure and struggle, desire and heartbreak.
Her Lascilo Perdere (2005) contains a notorious duet, set to a Vivaldi motet, in which a woman clasps a man’s tongue between her teeth and sustains that grip through a lengthy, demanding sequence of steps, turns, and lifts. Brazen in its eroticism, bravura in its level of difficulty, this performance is also simply a hoot. Who would ever think up such a thing?
And who on earth would dance such things?
“To dance for Aszure, you have to be able to let all of your walls down,” says Cherice. “If you try to keep them up, they’ll be broken down. That’s liberating.” A stunning film by Kevin Freeman, included in Lascilo Perdere, features sister Charissa submerged in water, holding her breath for an inordinate amount of time. “She’s the beautiful one who will do anything and has no fear,” says the choreographer.
Although Barton does not talk much about being a “woman choreographer,” she admits to admiring an elder woman artist whom, she feels, is very connected to her womanhood. “I bow down to Pina Bausch,” she says. “She seems unbelievably intuitive. She has a lot going on internally and is not afraid to use it. She is fearless.”
Dancers invariably mention Barton’s own intuitive gift; they say she just knows who they are and what they bring to the table. “Luckily,” says Barton, “the people I work with feel that they can trust the environment, that they can come in and let everything out. A lot of them bring their ‘stuff’ to the studio. They call me director-choreographer-psychotherapist. I love that! I am interested in how people move but much more fascinated with what moves them.”
Shamel Pitts, a member of [bjm_danse] and a 2007 Juilliard graduate who performed in Over/Come, says he never worked with someone who required so much mental stamina. “You become very emotional,” he says about dancing for Barton. “She utilizes your brain in a way that’s both joyful and painful.”
Ian Robinson, an Aszure & Artists dancer who assists the choreographer, notes that her approach is based in love of her dancers and a delight in empowering them as co-creators. “Her job is brushing away the things that are not needed in telling her story,” says Robinson. “Aszure knows the truth is in there already, with the dancers, with the project. There’s always such camaraderie with her people.” This committed team includes not only performers but also filmmakers, designers, photographers, and musicians. “She’s got a good eye for putting the right people together,” Robinson adds.
Last year Barton and three of her dancers participated in Kenya’s Earth/Healing the Rift, a project that engaged artists in honor of the environment. Bringing together numerous international artists—from the Huun Huur Tu throat singers to the Afro Cuban Drum Ensemble—the resulting ceremony was dedicated to global action on issues of climate change and sustainability. Barton’s group spent a week in the 100,000-acre Laikipia Nature Conservancy, teaming up with dancers from East Africa. “It was amazing,” says Robinson, remembering how they would wake up to find their tents surrounded by zebras.
This spring, Barton will head to the Banff Centre to complete a new dance for Louis Robitaille’s [bjm_danse]. Set to premiere at the Canada Danse Festival in June, the commissioned piece will be paired with the rambunctious and lusty Les Chambres des Jacques (2006) for a full Barton evening for the Montréal troupe.
“We have personalities—characters—in this company,” says Robitaille. “Some are very exuberant, others more reserved; there’s a bunch of color there. Aszure worked on bringing out the best in each dancer, the reason they dance. That’s what I like about her: human beings onstage, not something that’s untouchable. Flesh, muscle, and bones. You can feel it.”
A new residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center will afford Barton time to develop more work for Aszure & Artists, her first priority. She has a commission lined up with the National Ballet of Canada and, in August, will head to Australia to work with the Sydney Dance Company. With all of these opportunities at hand, Barton still eagerly sprints towards the next creative challenge, a possible collaboration with maverick flamenco dancer María Pagés.
“We’re planting a seed,” says Barton. “When I met with her in a Madrid studio, we didn’t know each other at all but started playing with ideas, seeing what happens when you merge the two worlds. Then she worked with us in New York for a week, and it went very well.” A match like this is not totally without precedent; Barton has always crossed cultural borders to create her portraits and landscapes of the human psyche.
“I know that I’m only at the beginning, only scraping the surface of where I can be,” says Barton. “I’ll be doing this for a long time, because there’s so much more that I need to discover.”
Eva Yaa Asantewaa, a NYC-based dance critic, writes a dance blog at www.infinitebody.blogspot.com and hosts its podcast, Body and Soul.
Photo by Matthew Karas.