Look at Me

Photo: Graeme Mitchell

‘My dancers and I were talking the other day about how we’re like a bunch of chickens in a cage,” Aszure Barton says with a giggle. “It’s an odd thing we do, entertaining people.” The choreographer—curled up on a couch in a spartan office above the studios of the Baryshnikov Arts Center, her spindly former-ballerina legs tucked beneath her—is talking about her latest work, BUSK, which refers not to busking but to the word’s Spanish root, buscar, meaning “to seek.” The haunting piece is some of Barton’s most personal work, touching on her own insecurities onstage, but also exploring the need of performers to put themselves on display. “I enjoy being a performer—I’ll always be a clown that way—but it’s still very challenging for me to be 100 percent myself in front of an audience,” she says. “I haven’t even arrived at that point yet, which is why I love [choreography]. As a dancer, I was putting so much pressure on myself. There’s nothing worse than being onstage and having your other self watching you and judging.”

At 35, Barton is one of the most promising and consistently commissioned young choreographers in modern dance and ballet. She has the sort of infectious enthusiasm you might find in a favorite camp counselor, and her work is just as inviting: Not abstruse or overly clever, it fuses elegant fluidity with simple everyday gestures. She grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, and trained in ballet yet was always more excited about the creation of dance than the performing of it. When she was 15, Barton and her best friend started a choreographic workshop, which still exists, at Canada’s National Ballet School. She came to New York in 1999 to visit her sister (also a dancer), not intending to stay permanently, but soon found the city to be the ideal place to “discover new ways of moving and thinking.” In 2003, while performing with a group of fellow choreographers in Nebraska, she met her future mentor Mikhail Baryshnikov, another convert to modern dance. “He said, ‘I heard you’re good. I want to see your work.’ I thought, Yeah, right, I’ll never hear from him again.

Instead, two years later, Barton became the first choreographer in the BAC, where she’d eventually create Come In for Baryshnikov and Juilliard dancers. “Misha’s one of the most curious people I’ve met in my life,” says Barton, who benefited from his inquiring mind while searching for music for BUSK. He turned her on to Ljova and the Kontraband, a gypsy ensemble led by violist Lev Zhurbin. “Misha said, ‘This guy has the same heart as you.’ Right away we put the CD on, and I fell to my knees like, Yeaaaahhhh!” She promptly reenacts this moment.

“It’s so easy to be technically good,” says Zhurbin, whose earthy, idiosyncratic rhythms drive BUSK’s alternating moods of loneliness and desperation. “But it’s wonderful when people put their soul into it and it weighs something, you know?”

Barton certainly values technique: “Classical form is amazing, but to break free from it is, too.” What she is determined to offer is an emotional safety often missing from the classic studio. “I give the dancers so much, but limit the direction,” allowing them to become, as she puts it, “vulnerable enough to find the courage to be exactly who they are. It’s about creating a platform where people don’t feel judged and can actually make asses of themselves a little bit.”

Baryshnikov, who has experienced her direction firsthand, describes it thus: “She looks in the dancer’s eyes when she works with them. She’s definitely trying to get under your skin, understanding what kind of person you are.” He laughs. “She likes to be a mama.”

Aszure Barton.
Baryshnikov Arts Center.
December 17–19.

Look at Me