Dance Matters

January 21, 2007

Aszure All Over

Canadian-born Aszure Barton, 30, has been a practicing choreographer for almost her entire life. Yet for many people she seems to have burst onto the American scene out of the blue. And soon there’ll be no ignoring her.


This month and next, Barton and her flexibly populated group of dance virtuosi, ASzURe & Artists, will be resident in Spoleto and Jacob’s Pillow. Barton and some of her dancers will also participate in Hell’s Kitchen Dance, a tour program put together by Mikhail Baryshnikov. The performers include students from The Juilliard School and Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and the repertoire includes two Barton works. The program will also feature a duet, choreographed by New York City Ballet’s Benjamin Millepied, in which Barton will dance with Baryshnikov. “His life is his Center,” Barton said, speaking of Baryshnikov’s new creative venture in Manhattan, the Baryshnikov Arts Center, where Barton and Millepied are the first artists-in-residence. “He wants to bring emerging artists together and present them.” Barton has also found time to work on Broadway. (See “On Broadway,” p. 116.)


Where did this dynamo come from?


“I popped out making dances,” Barton said over hot oatmeal in a New York deli before a rehearsal. She used to dress up her two sisters, and the three would perform for their parents, she said. “Now,” she added, “they both dance with me.”


By 15, Barton had gone from devising home productions in her native Alberta to preparing barefoot dances for classically trained students in the Stephen Godfrey Choreographic Showcase at the National Ballet School in Toronto, where she was on scholarship. For a while, she danced in ballet and modern companies in North America and Europe; but her real career, she knew, was in choreography. She speaks emphatically of the devoted support she gets from Baryshnikov and from her family, who encourage her to follow her bliss. Still, she reserves top praise for her performers.


“I wouldn’t be where I am without my dancers,” she said. “They’re really self-sacrificing for me. I pay them peanuts [now], but it was nothing in the beginning.” Furthermore, “New York City is really expensive. It costs $5,000 to $10,000 to do a simple little concert.”


ASzURe & Artists is, as Barton noted, “a project, rather than a dance company, so it changes quickly. Generally, it’s between 8 and 11 dancers, often including me. I don’t want to do all big pieces. I’m doing a quartet for Benjamin’s group.” The piece will be absorbed by A & A.


“A lot of people have wanted to help me,” Barton continued. “But I don’t want a company right now. I’m only starting. I feel that if I put a company together, my work will look like so many others.” Her goal for the moment, she said, is to keep trying, “to change and evolve.” She also wants to work in different media. She has already made two dance films with Vancouver-based filmmaker Daniel Conrad. The most recent, Afternoon of the Chimeras, was filmed in the Queen Charlotte Islands. “A helicopter dropped us and left us for four weeks,” Barton said. “I had to generate [choreography] so fast, because of the weather, the perfect light, and hiking three or four hours a day. We survived.”


Referring to her choreography, Barton said, “I’m just doing it from my gut. I keep changing dancers every project, so I’m challenged. People say to me, ‘Oh, your dancers are such good actors.’ It’s because they’re real! You really see what they’re all about.” —Mindy Aloff


One River Mississippi

For the last nine years on a mid-June evening, Marylee Hardenbergh’s site-specific dance, Solstice River, has animated downtown Minneapolis at the spot where the historic Stone Arch Bridge crosses the Mississippi River. Thousands of people gather on the bridge for the free event. Its actions include dancers in colorful leotards performing expansive movements from boats in the river, on grain silos, on the balconies of renovated flour mills, and from a walkway over the lock and dam adjacent to the bridge.


On June 24, Solstice River will be just one of seven performances orchestrated by Harden-bergh to occur simultaneously along the length of the Mississippi. The new seven-site work, which is called One River Mississippi, includes dances at the river’s headwaters in Minnesota’s Itasca State Park; Centennial Bridge in Davenport, Iowa; Eads Bridge and environs in St. Louis; Mud Island in Memphis; the wharves at River-Sphere in New Orleans, and the Woodland Plantation near Venice, Louisiana.


“I’d seen how my dances generate a sense of belonging, of community, in one site,” says the Minneapolis-based Hardenbergh. “But I wondered what might happen when the site is stretched so that it becomes an entire river. And what sort of resonance might occur when a series of site-specific dances are performed simultaneously at great distances.”


To encourage resonance, the last four minutes of One River Mississippi will consist of a circular gesture, made with the hands rolling out from the heart toward the river and back again. All the dancers—and, Hardenbergh hopes, audience members—will perform it together. A former student of dance therapist Irmgard Bartenieff and devotee of Rudolf von Laban’s movement choirs, Hardenbergh says she incorporates unison movements in all of her dances to create “group cohesion.”


In addition, Minnesota composer Lee Blaske has assigned a different musical note to each site. When sung by performers and audience along the river, the notes will create a symphonic chord that will be digitally combined and broadcast over local radio stations. Blaske has also composed a score to be aired at every site during the piece’s finale. While each location has its own local choreographer (their backgrounds include ballet, modern, musical theater, and liturgical dance), Hardenbergh selected the sites and mentored each choreographer in creating an on-site dance work.


The concept of connection inhe-rent to the project acquired new meaning after last year’s devastation along the Gulf Coast. Many New Orleans dancers, after a period of exile, will perform in the work. Choreographer Monique Moss, who had taken refuge with friends in Flagstaff, Arizona, says, “The energy and inspiration Hardenbergh brings to New Orleans has been well received. New Orleans natives could use a little beauty and celebration in their lives.” —Camille Lefevre


By Chance or By Design?

How is dance improvisation like neurons in the brain?


No, that’s not a riddle, but the kind of question that arises in the new field of inquiry called complex systems. Scientists in this area look for principles of self-organization that cut across such apparently different phenomena as improvisation, brain activity, stock market behavior, and bird migration.


With birds, for instance, “There’s no lead bird who dictates, ‘Now we’ll be in this V,’ ” said choreographer Susan Sgorbati. “They’re forming patterns by sensing where they all are in space, by wind currents. That’s what the dancers are experiencing,”


Sgorbati will join 700 researchers—including neuroscientists, physicists, and evolutionary biologists at the International Conference on Complex Systems in Boston, June 25–30. A dance professor at Benning-ton College, she began talking to scientists five years ago. Their descriptions of how spontaneous processes can generate elaborate patterns, as in migrating birds, echoed what she’d observed in 15 years of improvising in groups.


“With the dancers, there’s endless differentiation of how patterns get replicated or how a new pattern emerges from the pattern before,” Sgorbati said. “They’re building from a simple unison pattern to greater and greater complexity.”


Inspired by her conversations with scientists, Sgorbati has developed several improvisation forms that she put onstage for the first time in February. The performance, by seven dancers and three musicians from her Emergent Improvisation Project, took place at the Neurosciences Institute (NSI) in La Jolla, California, where she’s done three residencies.


Sgorbati’s “Complex Unison” form, for example, sets some basic structures, such as, “at some point, everyone will raise one arm.” In La Jolla, the dancers formed fleeting groups, until, near the end of the 14-minute performance, a more involved composition emerged: Two dancers crouched together, two others tangled limbs, and a trio crooked their arms as if holding a fragile object. For Sgorbati, that moment of partial unison marked a jump in the group’s self-organization.


For NSI theoretical neurobiologist Anil Seth, it offered a metaphor for brain activity. “Nobody tells each individual neuron what to do, they just do it,” said Seth. “Susan is seeing how global patterns on the dance floor emerge from interactions among dancers.”


The “Memory Form” reflects the ideas of NSI’s founder, Nobel Laureate Gerald M. Edelman, who maintains that memory is “an open-ended process of reconstruction of past into present,” according to Sgorbati. The dancers did two identical run-throughs of a two-minute sequence they’d created previously. Subsequent run-throughs retained details of the original, but jumbled them: A different person did a cartwheel; this time, no one supported a dancer’s raised leg. It got really interesting, because one’s own memory filled the gaps, moving this experiment into the audience’s minds.


That audience involvement is what most excited Sgorbati and the performers. “We felt we were engaged in another way of experiencing performance, as if we were presenting research and the audience was giving us feedback as part of the laboratory.”


Sgorbati and members of The Emergent Improvisation Project will perform June 25 at the Marriott Boston Quincy as part of the International Conference on Complex Systems. —Janice Steinberg