Winter Guide: Mikhail Baryshnikov Hosts the Hoodies

Street kids! Monks! Aszure Barton & artists bring Busk to BAC

Winter Guide: Mikhail Baryshnikov Hosts the Hoodies

Since 2002, New York has seen a great deal of Aszure Barton’s choreography. BJM Danse Montréal, American Ballet Theatre, The Threepenny Opera at Studio 54, Hell’s Kitchen Dance with Mikhail Baryshnikov, and many more—there’s been no shortage of opportunities to judge how the Alberta-born thirtysomething handles a commission. But local performances by Aszure Barton & Artists—the company she founded here that same year—have been scarce: a 2003 debut at Joyce Soho, a brief run at the tiny Duo Theater in 2008. Bringing Busk to the Baryshnikov Arts Center, from December 17 to 18, the troupe makes a rare visit home.

The difference between choreography and company is significant because Barton is the kind of choreographer to whom the dancers are the work. “The work is their stories as physical performers,” she says. She enters each new project blind, trusting to intuition, as much instigator and editor as creator. This is not a mode that naturally matches the regimented procedures of ballet companies. Barton enjoys converting the unaccustomed, but the dancers in her own company—“I shouldn’t say my dancers, the dancers that I work with”—skip that step. Though the company is project-based rather than full-time, there’s a history. They know her, and she knows them—strong personalities candid with their own eccentricities. She calls them family. Two of them (not in Busk) are her sisters by blood.

Even with the right participants, Barton’s process demands time, space, and benefactors. The space the benefactors provide, the physical surroundings, can leave an imprint. You might guess, rightly, that Busk, with its contortionist solos and street performers holding out white-gloved hands, was commissioned for the Ringling International Arts Festival in Sarasota, a high-class event with a circus past. But Barton also points to its gestation at Danceworks in Santa Barbara. In the Pacific sunshine, the company discovered a vast gulf separating the social classes and ruminated about where dancers fit. Barton grew enamored of a homeless vet who crocheted fresh flowers into his hair.

Perhaps that concern helps explain why the dancers, cowled in hoodies, look like street kids one moment and satanic monks the next, why the contortionist is encircled by obscure figures and shadowed by one as she exits. Busk bristles with the outlandish gestures for which Barton is known, those images in her highlight reel of one performer’s hand or tongue between another’s teeth. But a theme that might have brought out the cuteness that can be cloying in previous dances produced instead her darkest yet. “I was thinking of buscar,” she says, “the verb for ‘to search.’ ”

The Baryshnikov Arts Center isn’t just any New York theater. The man on the marquee has been Barton’s greatest champion, once comparing her to a young Mark Morris. She was the center’s first artist-in-residence. BAC brought Busk to Sarasota, and BAC asked her to expand it for New York. Hoping to attract more than dance regulars, Barton is fulfilling a long-held wish for live music (Lev Zhurbin’s Gypsy-tinged Ljova & the Kontraband), bringing in designers to transform the theater. She wants to let her dances grow and change on the road, as her dancers do. During a recent tech rehearsal in Germany, the local crew asked, “Is the piece even done?”

On Barton’s website, there’s a picture of the choreographer at age seven, up in a tree in a monkey suit. “I still feel like that girl,” she says, “single, curious, crazy, weird.” Her disposition is as sunny as Santa Barbara. She speaks of herself as the luckiest person on the planet, of the rehearsal studio as an ego-free zone of love. But admit to her that this article about her dance-theater work will be confined to the dance section and watch her snarl in frustration and claw the air.

Aszure Barton & Artists, ‘Busk,’ Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 West 37th Street ,bacnyc.com

Winter Dance Listings

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
December 1 to January 2
For decades, nearly every time this most successful of modern dance companies has performed, it has performed Revelations. What other dance has been seen by more people? For the masterpiece’s 50th birthday, it gets an enlarged cast, a dancer for each candle on the cake, and live music. Two of those performances will be conducted by Judith Jamison, the departing artistic director, who also gets a farewell evening. Her successor, Robert Battle, introduces himself by importing his own The Hunt. More auspicious is the resurrection of Ailey’s Three Black Kings with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra applying the elegant defibrillator of Duke Ellington’s score. City Center, 135 West 55th Street, alvinailey.org

American Ballet Theatre
December 22 to January 2
’Tis the season for Nutcrackers, and amid a handful of smaller variations, the return of Balanchine’s classic at City Ballet and Mark Morris’s Hard Nut is always welcome, if not a source of pre-holiday suspense. This winter, though, there’s an unopened gift under the ABT tree. We know the E.T.A. Hoffmann story, the glorious Tchaikovsky score. The surprise is what Alexei Ratmansky will bring as choreographer. Trust him to believe in that story, hear that score afresh. BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, bam.org

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