Living the Choreographer’s Dream, Aszure Barton
Few choreographers have been successful and willing to allow themselves the freedom to enjoy their gifts. Aszure Barton, who was born in Alberta and trained at the National Ballet School in Toronto, continues to gain momentum and attention throughout the New York arts community as her work reaches far beyond the city. Even after the recent New York debut performance of Come In with one of the greatest dancers of our time, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Barton does not allow the pressures of having to produce and live up to expectations stand in the way of her love for creation. I followed her through a whole year to understand why.
In March 2006, Barton choreographed The Threepenny Opera, her first Broadway musical. Creating for he ever-nimble and delightful stage veteran Jim Dale, and for the hot-blooded duo Cindy Lauper and Alan Cumming, was a crazy and fun experience, she says. In fact, the entire cast of Threepenny was wild!
The following summer, Barton created Come In with Baryshnikov and the Hell’s Kitchen Dancers and toured with them around the U.S. and Spain, where she also performed a duet with the legendary ballet star, in a work choreographed by Benjamin Millepied. Working with Misha is wonderful, she says. He is very positive and relentless, and he loves the creative process. It has been an absolute pleasure to work with him and I am thrilled to know him.
Baryshnikov took Barton under his wing when the two met in 2002. Believing her to be a fresh, arresting, and fascinating choreographer, he offered Barton his first residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in 2005, and has continued to support her career by performing her works for two consecutive years.Preoccupied with performances at Hell’s Kitchen Dance, she took her then four-year-old company, Aszure & Artists, to Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts, the Summer-dance Festival in Santa Barbara, and the Spoleto Festival in Charleston. They performed Over/Come, Sweet Dream, Short-Lived, and Lascilo Perdere (containing Bartons infamous duet in which a couple remains locked together by the man’s tongue and the woman’s teeth for four and a half powerfully sensual minutes). Rave reviews followed everywhere she went.
Barton then took seven intense weeks in the fall of 2006 to create les Chambres des Jacques for Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, the company for whom she once danced and now serves as its resident choreographer. The dancers in the company and my assistant, Ariel Freedman, were hugely generous and trusted me completely. It was an arduous but incredible process, and I love the piece.
Shortly after she created Still with the talented seniors at Juilliard, with music by Alfred Schnittke. This was followed by another creation entitled Alto for Transitions Dance Company at the Laban in London.
Each composition of Barton’s is vastly unique, despite their often- overlapping creation periods. Right now I enjoy walking into the creation process with no fixed plan,� she explains. I am very interested in dancers as human beings and I like to have fun in the process. I try to remain open. I love to observe and seize candid moments and use this as the foundation of the work. The process has become listening to and observing my cast, rather than teaching steps. I am interested in creating dense, rapidly shifting environments onstage, in which each player is an individual and all are unified by a common tongue.
Barton’s dream of going to Africa came true in February 2007 when she took three dancers with her to Kenya to take part in an environmental awareness project with dozens of other artists from around the world. Called Earth: Healing the Rift, the Laikipia Nature Conservancy performance was inspired by the prevalent theme of climate change and global warming, and our duty to do something about it. Barton felt very strongly about working with the Kenyan children and community to try to make a difference. The entire experience was so breathtaking and necessary at that point in my life. It was so wonderful to recognize how vital dance is and to realize that everyone is a teacher. I hope to go back again very soon! �
It doesn’t stop there. This 31- year-old fireball of creativity has a lot to look forward to. This summer she toured again with Baryshnikov and Hell’s Kitchen Dance around the U.S. and Brazil. She is now creating a new work for Les Ballets Jazz, then will travel to Prague to work on a dance movie with director Daniel Conrad. In 2005 they collaborated on an adventurous film on the Queen Charlotte Islands on the Western coast of Canada. She is also very excited to work with the Flamenco star Maria Pages, and to create a new work for her company.
An artist’s dream to work with, Barton is attracting many aspiring dancers. Despite the fact that Aszure & Artists does not hold regular auditions, which can be frustrating for some dancers. Barton is very good at finding exactly what she wants. When searching for the perfect combination of dancers and music, she sounds as though she’s searching for a soul mate. Trust, she says. I love a dancer that is interested and interesting, honest, vulnerable, open, fearless, compelling and clear. I love laughter, so a good sense of humor is great too! � But music is every bit as important to her: I celebrate and am deeply inspired by music. I listen to a lot of music and I am continually learning � and spending a lot of coinage on it! Her work has been described as intensely musical, structurally astonishing, and emotionally moving.
William Briscoe, one of Ms. Barton’s lead dancers and assistants since 2002, describes his experience creating with Aszure: If you’re not very good at mathematics it can be difficult because of the timing and phrasing of her music. There’s always an and count that you could easily miss. I’m a better teacher because of working with Aszure. I use all of the nuances in the music now, not simply the obvious. As a dancer, you never really perfect Aszure’s work in the process there’s always a chance for it to become more enriched through expression and practice in the studio. Briscoe finds that he has improved as an artist on many levels with Aszure. I still feel like there’s more to investigate, and we’re friends too. Most of us prefer to work with friends rather than some maniacal, crazy boss.
The unusual opportunities that present themselves to Barton are not simply good fortune. Barton has a passion for collaborating with brilliant artists of all trades. From photographer George Lange, to the musicians of Les Yeux Noirs, to the filmmaker Kevin Freeman, she seeks out a wide array of work to stay constantly challenged and inspired. In her travels, Aszure gets to see the world from a new perspective every time and gains a fresh outlook on what it is to be a thriving artist.
Dealing with the financial end of the dance world is never easy, but Ms. Barton always chooses the most attractive experience over the most lucrative. Maybe that’s her secret! Though it doesn’t hurt to have a name like Baryshnikov behind her, Aszure is a strong, independent artist who savors every opportunity to live the choreographer’s dream.
Written by Cynthia Salgado | Photography by George Lange