A scene from Aszurer Barton's Blue Soup
Welcoming Blue Skies: Introducing Choreographer Aszure Barton
By Debra Cash
What kind of courage does it take to put your imagination into the world and ask people to pay attention? There may seem to be an insurmountable gulf between the street musician with his open instrument case staking out a busy intersection, and the celebrated artist who can take advantage of all the accoutrements of a professional engagement and expect to go home with a paycheck. But are the two really so very different?
This 2011 Celebrity Series engagement marks the much-anticipated Boston debut of Aszure Barton & Artists. The journey that brings her company here has been a whirlwind, from Barton’s first “professional” dance pieces—including a solo she performed at a 42nd Street deli in New York City—to her recent “keys to the city” moment when she was proclaimed the honorary Ambassador of Contemporary Choreography in her native Alberta, Canada.
Barton was three years old, the youngest of three dancing sisters, when she started learning to tap dance in Edmonton. Quickly, she added just about every other kind of dance activity you can name: ballet, of course, and jazz and modern, but also synchronized swimming and Scottish highland dance. She was a track and field star— the top high jumper in the Catholic school circuit in Alberta—but dancing took precedence.
When she was 14, her parents agreed to let her move to Toronto to study at the National Ballet of Canada. She was a nascent choreographer even then: the student choreographic workshop she and friend started there—now named the Stephen Godfrey Choreographic Workshop—continues to allow students to learn to choreograph by choreographing. She went on to perform with that company and with Montreal’s Ballets Jazz de Montréal (now called bjm_danse).
Barton set out on a few years as a freelance dancer in Europe and in New York. Her big break, though, happened far from geographical centers of high culture. In 2003 she was in Nebraska working on a pick-up project with former Mark Morris company dancer Ruth Davidson Hahn. There was a reception, and as she tells the story, Mikhail Baryshnikov was there to perform a solo Hahn had created for him a few seasons earlier. The two started talking shop.
Baryshnikov told Barton “I heard you’re good. I want to see your work.” And Barton remembers thinking “Yeah, right, I’ll never hear from him again.”
He did call, though, and liked what he saw. Barton’s career took off .When the Baryshnikov Arts Center opened in New York in 2005, she was tapped to be one of its first resident choreographers, an honor she repeated in 2006 and 2008. Her reputation solidified when her choreography garnered a Tony nomination for the 2006 Broadway revival of the Brecht-Weill Threepenny Opera featuring Jim Dale, Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper. In the past decade she has contributed dances for more than thirty companies, including American Ballet Theatre and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.
While Barton’s choreographic language sometimes seems like a mash-up of genres, it also reads as a healthy artistic agnosticism. Barton is an equal opportunity assimilator, filtering the ways people move through her own distinctive sensibility and her dancers’ robust talents.
Take Busk, the newest work on these Boston programs. Barton likes to say that it doesn’t take its name from buskers, but instead from the Spanish root word buscar, meaning “to seek.”
Created during a four-week residency in the vibrant Santa Barbara sunshine, Barton and her collaborators found themselves startled by the proximity of wealth and older veterans living on the street. “It made me wonder ‘where do we fit into this picture?” she says.
It was Baryshnikov who suggested the gypsy-inspired score by Ljova and the Kontraband that became Busk’s musical engine. Moscow-born Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin had moved to New York in 1990, and Barton found in him a kindred soul who, like her, was a playful experimenter who never hid from his classical roots. Kontraband’s recorded contribution is augmented by music played on conventional and invented instruments by the legendary blind New York street musician—a true busker—known as Moondog, who was famed for dressing in a horned cap in the persona of the Norse god Thor.
There’s more than a touch the Fellini classic La Strada in Busk: its performers are presented as ordinary
working people whose jobs are, paradoxically, to magic other people’s ordinary routines. Aszure Barton plays with the confidence—real or simulated—of the busker, while portraying the crowd’s longing to be enchanted and transported.
Azure (without the s) is, of course, a shade of blue, the color of lapis lazuli or of the sky on a bright fall day. Blue Soup made two years ago, stitches together—and by juxtaposition, rethinks—choreographic elements from three earlier repertory works, “Mai We,” “I” and “Over/Come,” the last created during her initial Baryshnikov Arts Center residency. The components show where she has come from; the current structure shows how far she has traveled.
Over the years, Barton explains, she has been most compelled by exploring the way interior states drive visible expression, “to see the shape and form of the release.” In Blue Soup Barton’s cinematic imagination is on full display. Scenes and vignettes are played out against the environment of African vocalizing, a Swedish choir, Japanese kodo drumming, and comic book exclamations from French musician Serge Gainsbourg. At times, gorgeous movement seems almost blurted out. She can dig into the hyperbole of corny 1950s love ballads or make an acerbic comment. Across her moods, rhythm can either root the dancers to the spaces they inhabit or knock them off their centers and onto their knees.
In Blue Soup everyone embraces their idiosyncracies. And it’s easy to see in this medley why the dance world has paid so much attention to the idiosyncratic Aszure Barton, this gifted protégée, this New York hipster, this all grown-up wild child of the Canadian plains.
© 2011 Debra Cash
Aszure Barton & Artists perform at the Tsai Performance center at Boston University November 4 & 5.