Azure Barton at the Pillow

ASzURe & Artists
Choreography by Aszure Barton
Doris Duke Studio Theater
Jaocb’s Pillow Dance Festival
Becket, MA
July 2, 2006

by Susan Reiter
copyright ©2006, Susan Reiter

The ominous and the dangerous were lurking close to the surface, if not in front of our eyes, throughout the strikingly inventive program of Aszure Barton’s works — a return engagement at Jacob’s Pillow for her troupe after a well-received week there last year. Even the rambunctious, raunchy, ready-for-anything bunch of vigorous movers, dressed in sportily chic jeans, shorts and tops, scattered across the floor of the generous Duke space when the smoky lighting first went up on “Over/Come" soon revealed themselves as something darker than eager, energetic youngsters. By the time we’d been taken through “Short-Lived,” a broodingly knotty quartet, and moved onto the somber, ritualistic sensuality of the imposing “Lascilo Perdere,” Barton’s blend of sensual, grotesque and vigorously athletic movement added up to a powerful, meaty experience.

What was immediately apparent, and confirmed throughout the program, was her ability to present dancers as thinking, sentient beings. Her choreography never turns them into wind-up figures going through motions on command. The dancers are robustly individual, very real and down-to-earth — and also extremely skilled and brave.

Soothing vintage romantic songs by Andy Williams and Giorgio Conte, which alternate to provide the score for “Over/Come,” seem to invite ironic distance or even mockery. Before the music begins, we hear a loud, desperate screech — just enough to unsettle us. Certainly Barton’s selection of them for this full-company work has a sly intent right form the start, as the splayed and reclining dancers hold their positions, waiting expectantly, while Williams croons “How wonderful” it is to be in love. When the first of Conte’s French tunes is heard, the look of cheeky innocence gives way to more grown-up, and suggestive activity. Dancers eye one another flirtatiously, pelvises undulate smoothly, as a blend of vigorous social dancing and watchful hesitancy takes over. The casual, springy quality of the movement is undercut by odd gestures — splayed hands, often touching the crotch of rubbing on the thighs, become a motif.

By the time we get to Conte’s next song, things are getting down and dirty. Caught in the glow of red lighting, five couples engage in playfully suggestive antics. The women kneel before their men, then straddle them and “ride” them off into the wings. To the insinuating pulse of Williams’ “Are You Sincere?” Barton stands on a man’s back, laughing and balancing as he arches a lowers his torso. Attraction and the impulse for cruelty seem linked as these sly, manipulative people encounter one another and break apart. It all culminates in a mesmerizing, angry solo for the petite and riveting Ariel Freedman as the other ten surround her on the three sides of the stage.

Barton brings things full circle — with an added ironic edge — with a reprise of the opening song, and the dancers resuming their isolated, seemingly random positions — including the guy who, seemingly off in his own world, stands on his head far upstage. But this time, Freedman gets his attention, and what begins as a mauling devolves into an intense kiss, before they sink to the floor. As the lights go down, several of the not-so-relaxed prone bodies are shaking just slightly.

“Over/Come” is also being performed as part of the Hell’s Kitchen Dance program developed at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, where Barton was in residence. That ensemble consists mainly of current and recent Juilliard and NYU students, and one can sense that their youthful energy helped shape the work’s eager sense of discovery and capacity for surprise.

The steady, incessant tango-flavored rhythm and wailing melodies of the Cracow Klezmer Band established a mournfully wary tone to the shadowy, slippery encounters of “Short-Lived”’s first movement. Charissa Barton. Freedman, William Briscoe and Doug Letheren, in simply stretchy black outfits, navigated diagonal corridors of light, within an expanse of darkness, in movement that unfurled with the same degree of pain, urgency and intensity as the music, with which Aszure Barton clearly has a fierce affinity.

At times, it was hard to distinguish between expressions of caring and the potential to inflict pain. One of the men sidled up behind the other, held him tightly from behind and slowly lifted him. Trust seemed like an expendable commodity for these four, as though allegiances could shift suddenly. When Briscoe, a remarkably fluid and controlled dancer, was left alone to perform a solo to plaintive Baroque music as the piece’s second movement, his supple eloquence seemed to make time stand still. His achingly slow backward hinge left an indelible imprint, but the entire solo seemed to spill forth effortlessly yet passionately.

This version of “Short-Lived” certainly made a stronger impression than its longer version as seen on Benjamin Millepied’s program at the Joyce last spring. It confirmed how excitingly Barton challenges and reveals her male dancers in particular, and also how confidently she gets inside the music she selects. Throughout the program, she used scores that are anything but background music, but one could sense her choreography’s connection to its inner workings. Nothing in the music was overemphasized, or ignored, but striking moments often arose because of how deftly they were wedded to it.

“Lascilo Perdere,” an extended 2005 work in ten sections which comprised the program’s second half, was set to gorgeous, impassioned Vivaldi vocal selections far removed from the giddy, charging familiarity of his frisky concertos. One could not help feeling, momentarily, that Barton was infringing on Mark Morris’ territory with this powerful music that resonates with anguish and turbulence.

Subtitled “a journey of letting go,” the piece offered a lot to take in — huge black-and-white film images that seemed to be telling their own stories loomed over the dancers some of the time. Intense close-ups of faces and bodies (in one case, a woman seemingly suspended calmly underwater, hardly breathing) came and went, as the seven dancers broke free of the chairs that initially held them in place. Sections that evoked expectation and restraint alternated with lush, full-bodied movement, such as the section that had the dancers launching themselves sideways through the air, somehow making it to the floor in one piece.

An undercurrent of lamentation and suffering ran throughout, as did a sense of individuals reaching out to sustain one another through grief. Most memorable was the hypnotically odd yet touching duet just before the end, as Freedman led Eric Beauchesne from the chair where he was rooted, holding his tongue in her mouth and never letting go as they wound through slow risings and sinkings, and managed to wrap their bodies around each other in gentle lifts.

On a first viewing (and it’s a dance deserving of return visits), “Lascilo Perdere” felt amazingly intimate for such a big work, and Barton’s control of its details, shape and tone were impressive. It takes us on a heady, careening journey, but with Barton as a savvy, confident guide, we embark willingly.

Volume 4, No. 26
July 10, 2006

copyright ©2006 Susan Reiter



©2006 DanceView