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Choreographer Aszure Barton creates dances that contain worlds where light and dark, grace and rawness, and mystery and certitude intermingle. The inventive quirkiness in her dances hovers in worlds fantastical, primal, precocious and ethereal. ICONS spoke with Aszure about her creative vision and rebelliousness that triumphed over the challenges during her career.
ICONS: Looking back, tell us about your early experiences and how you transitioned from dancing to choreographing.
Aszure Barton: I have a dancing family, although my parents never danced professionally. My mother has been fascinated with dance since she was a young girl and my father is a free spirit dancer and he will dance any time he has the chance.
My first dance experience at three was a tap dance. My two sisters and I also trained in ballet, musical theater, and jazz. I also took gymnastics, synchronized swimming, and Scottish sword dance, and I was a competitive high-jumper! We, the Barton sisters, were physically little creatures, to say the least.
When I was 12, I started focusing more on ballet, which was a great challenge. I attended the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School for a summer and I remember one of my teachers saying that I was rambunctious and that my actions were disruptive and this would have to change. The next year I auditioned for the National Ballet School (NBS) in Toronto. I got a significant scholarship, so I was able to go. I wanted the adventure.
Our primary focus at NBS was ballet, of course, but we also received training in modern and flamenco dance, which I really enjoyed. The overall experience included a spectrum of emotions -- everything from joy to devastation. That’s life. I didn’t always respond well to consistently being told what to do, so I rebelled. I wanted to make my own decisions and this is why I was drawn to choreography. Making dances allowed me to feel good about myself and confident in my decisions. My school friends and I would convene after hours and make dances together; this was our way of rebelling. Fun fact: 20-plus years later we are still making dances together!
Mavis Staines [the school’s artistic director and CEO] somehow supported our mischievous ways and responded by creating the Stephen Godfrey Choreographic Workshop, which is still ongoing. We were able to share our work on stage in front of an audience with lighting, costumes and full technical support. I realize how lucky I am to have had a director who believed in creativity and the importance of dance making.
ICONS: She was very instrumental in your choreographic development.
A.B.: She was. After dancing with The National Ballet of Canada for one season as an apprentice, Mavis suggested I audition for a grant to study contemporary choreography in Europe. I believe she felt that I’d be more suited to the “contemporary” dance scene. I auditioned for the grant, received it, and traveled throughout Europe solo for almost a year, living off of banquettes and observing choreography. I also auditioned a lot and was heartbroken a lot and fully realized that it was okay to not be a ballerina. Toward the end of my travels, I met up with my sister Cherice while she was on tour in London with Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal. The director kindly invited me to be a part-time apprentice with the company, so I moved to Montreal and was there for a few years. I simultaneously worked at Alcan Aluminum Company in the mailroom.
At Les Ballets Jazz I got to perform Lovers by Jennifer Muller -- a memorable experience for me. The company also had a choreographic workshop that I participated in. When I learned that I wasn’t going to be hired full time, my other sister, Charissa, invited me to New York to check it out. She was attending the Juilliard School at the time. I didn’t think I would end up living there, but, alas, I stayed for almost two decades.
When I arrived in New York, I worked at the front desk of a dance studio in exchange for free dance classes. I also babysat and worked in local restaurants for years. And I learned how to open my mind up to other ways of moving. I worked with some independent artists and I came across an incredible woman named Wendy Osserman, who took me under her wing and really believed in me as a dancer, which was encouraging and allowed me to put my own work out into the world as a creator. Through her, I was introduced to improvisation and authentic movement. My mind was blown. She rekindled in me this curiosity and drive to create. Wendy has a sense of humor and appreciated my sense of humor and I just felt supported by her. I loved the fact that she was weird. I then continued making and presenting my own work and realized how to do it.
ICONS: Would you talk about your process? Do you come in with something prepared or do you work with the collaborators in the room?
A.B.: I do both. Earlier in my career, I was busy stumbling through and learning in real time, thus I wasn’t able to recognize what was necessary. I am still learning, of course, but I am now much more thoughtful in my preparation. I have learned that in order to be fully present, I need to prepare -- sometimes this means for years.
In order to have freedom, I need structure. The process is a balance between being ready and being available to listen. It is essential for me to recognize who I am sharing a space with. I need to welcome change and be open to conversation, which ultimately means letting go. The conversation becomes the work itself.
It is also really important to understand the infrastructure of the organization that is commissioning the work. If I am creating with my own group, AB&A, I can dictate the amount of time we’re taking. I prefer moving slowly. But time is often very limited when working for other institutions. Again, in order to experience pleasure and to not be a complete basket case, I have to be extremely prepared.
ICONS: As a choreographer, you’re primarily self-taught. You’ve begun teaching composition this fall at USC’s Kaufman School. Tell us about working with the students there.
A.B.: I have a deep admiration for good teachers so I was initially very nervous and intimated, but I soon realized that I have a lot of experience and much to contribute. It’s my responsibility to share my perspective and to encourage young artists to make their own work. I try to emphasize that the only way one can learn how to choreograph is through choreographing: practice, practice, practice. The students at USC are wildly talented and driven and are already making some really cool stuff. They’re go-getters, their energy is infectious and I’m learning a lot from them too.
ICONS: You’ve lived and worked in a number of cities. New York was very inspirational for you and fed your artistic sensibility, but you also spent time in Montreal and throughout Europe. Now you’re in Los Angeles. Have these different locations affected your choreography?
A.B.: That’s a good question. I am very much affected by energy and space. Having a little more space around me has created a mental clarity and a calm that is different from my experience in New York. There is a quiet here in California that I did not experience there. I absolutely love New York and it supported my hustle, forced interaction, and fed me the energy I needed to make stuff happen for myself. There is no other place like it. It was just time for a change.
I am also much more physical and my anxiety has lessened. I’m rock climbing and hiking a lot, and I’ve found pleasure in being physical again, which I attribute to the calm. Reconnecting with my physicality is a direct result of being in California.
ICONS: What would you tell young choreographers?
A.B.: Make the dance you want to see, not the dance you think others want you to make :-)
Video sample of Aszure's in-studio rehearsal process with a commentary about her impact on the industry:
More About Aszure Barton:
Aszure Barton has had stunning success as a young choreographer, collaborating with celebrated dance artists and companies, including Mikhail Baryshnikov, American Ballet Theatre, Teatro alla Scala, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, English National Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theater, Martha Graham Dance Company, National Ballet of Canada, Bayerisches Staatsballett, Sydney Dance Company, Houston Ballet, and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, among many others.
As Founder and Director of Aszure Barton & Artists, her inter-disciplinary international dance project, she has been lauded with accolades like “brilliant” (San Francisco Chronicle), “audacious” (New York Times) and “genius” (Globe & Mail). Her works have been performed on countless international stages, including the Palais Garnier, Mariinsky Theater, The Kennedy Center, Sadler’s Wells, The Alicia Alonso Grand Theater, Teatro alla Scala, and Lincoln Center.
She was the first Martha Duffy Resident Artist at The Baryshnikov Arts Center and has been proclaimed an official Ambassador of Contemporary Choreography in Canada, where she grew up. Other choreography credits include the Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera, directed by Scott Elliott, translated by Wallace Shawn, and starring Cyndi Lauper, Alan Cumming, Jim Dale, Nellie Mackay, and Ana Gasteyer; film and installation projects, and international outreach activities such as Kenya’s Earth Project: Healing the Rift, at the Laikipia Nature Conservancy. Her choreography has also appeared in television projects, among them the Sundance Channel’s Iconoclasts series with Alice Waters and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
She is presently working on a new piece for her own Aszure Barton & Artists with working title #WTF, to premiere in Germany in summer 2019.
Photography by: Kim Williams, Don Lee, V. Fedorenko, George Lange, Graeme Mitchell, Brescia E. Amisano, Wilfried Hösl. Abel Rojas Barallobre. Pictured: Dancers of Aszure Barton & Artists, Bayerisches Staatsballet, and Teatro alla Scala.
Interviewer Lisa Traiger
Editor: Camilla Acquista
All Rights Reserved: December 2018 © Dance ICONS, Inc.