Original Virtue

Summer programs by two bold, skillful artists make surrealism look like a place we know

The news that Aszure Barton trained and/or performed with the National Ballet of Canada, Jir Kyli and Maurice Béjart; danced with Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal; and prowls New York's downtown scene hardly prepares you for her daring, craftsmanship, and musicality.

Her new Lascilo Perdere is set to secular and sacred selections from Vivaldi's vocal music (with a "De Profundis" played by a klezmer band), and Barton often lets us hear the music by arresting the movement or simplifying it. The ravishing, purling tones seem to invite the seven superb black-clad dancers to do as the title instructs: "let it be lost"—"it" being everything that twists and yanks their souls and bodies. Whether they succeed in breaking free is moot, though Kevin Freeman's first film clip shows a woman in a long, full coatdress stepping through a freestanding door frame, and the last shows her re-entering.

Anthony Smith's solo on one of a set of chairs introduces the intense gestures that Barton expands throughout the piece. Smith might be framing parts of his body or tying and molding pieces of air, then reaching out to snatch more. He might be trying to scrape away his skin or the memory of the hundred kisses the soprano sings of.

A moment in Aszure Barton’s choreography
photo: Courtesy Jacob's Pillow
A moment in Aszure Barton’s choreography

Details

ASzURe & Artists
Jacob's Pillow
Becket, Massachusetts
July 28 through 31

Susan Marshall and Company
Jacob's Pillow
August 4 through 7

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The occasional film image enhances the feeling of intimacy. A ballroom pair's clasped hands projected in close-up echo those of the onstage performers as they bow and eddy around one another like a polite school of fish. In one long sequence, Charissa Barton (the choreographer's sister) faces us underwater, smiling, as if healed by a dream of primal fluid.

The scale of the dancing expands and intensifies in brief outbursts for chair-based performers, framed one by one in Daniel Ranger's lighting. Yet nothing is loose; the torquing and angling of dancers' bodies, heads, arms, and legs suggest warm metal heated by inner demons to perverse malleability—true even in a later violent, wide-ranging solo for Eric Beauchesne to a raging countertenor aria. Beauchesne doesn't just bite his arm (a recurring gesture throughout); he devours the movement. And when he's exhausted, head flung backward over the back of his chair, Banning Roberts walks on and carefully takes his obediently outstretched tongue between her teeth. To Vivaldi's melting "Cum dederit," she slowly draws him to his feet and into a duet. Barton shows us that if two people can accomplish so many complicated maneuvers slowly and tenderly, without ever breaking the intimate, awkward, possibly painful connection, they have ceded much to gain something far greater.

Organic is a useful but leaden word. It no more accounts for the beauties of Susan Marshall's choreography than it explains a luscious tomato. In a Marshall work, ideas and patterns, no matter how unusual, evoke natural behavior in all its complexity. The dancers, who contribute to the choreography, inhabit it fully. Passages of flingy, resilient movement look like the result of inner or environmental storms; performers repeating gestures many times in various ways seem to be trying to understand them.

Marshall's Jacob's Pillow premiere, tentatively titled Cloudless (an expanded version arrives at Dance Theater Workshop next spring), is a series of vignettes. Luke Miller performs a surreal solo brilliantly; looking both thoughtful and dazed, he thrusts and slides his long body into a meditation that he must keep beginning again, jolted by Jane Shaw's sound design, his own doubts, or bizarre interruptions. A man slides onstage lying on his back and starts to propel himself across the space. Miller rushes over and pushes him by the head back into the wings. Gradually more people intrude this way. They become harder to evict. Eventually, a screen, a puffy cloud, and a chair glide across on their own. Fade-out on an unsolved dilemma.

The tasks Marshall sets her dancers are often ambiguous. In one section, Joseph Poulson and Darrin M. Wright sometimes appear to be helping Petra van Noort (wearing a long, somewhat scruffy tutu) groom herself, as the three slip in and out of enigmatic entanglements in a confined area of space. Confinement emerges as a theme. When van Noort lies supine, the men with absurdly inefficient efficiency measure her and the space beyond her, their hands held a foot apart. Later, juddering and squirming on a tabletop, Wright measures its area. In another solo, van Noort twists and dips to the floor in one spot, her fluttering hands, alertly shifting gaze, and occasional small jumps escalating into fluid excitement as if induced by compression.

The table becomes even more confining when Poulson and Miller sit at it and take turns carefully flipping the pages of a thick book. Seated on chairs behind the men, Wright and Kristen Hollinsworth occasionally lean forward to whisper advice. Gradually, Miller dominates. A standing fan begins to riffle the pages rapidly. Is Miller now trying to stop Poulson from intervening, or is the situation more complicated? The men's gestures become a curiously tender form of arm wrestling. The last few pages resist—perhaps because a hand deflects the wind? The two close the book and the lights go out. But not in my enthralled mind.

 
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