Teeth and Claws


During the last section of Aszure Barton’s riveting Lascilo Perdere (2005), the audience in the Doris Duke Studio Theatre starts to fidget. People shift in their chairs; you can hear small intakes of breath and sotto voce grunts. The reactions have nothing to do with boredom. To a ravishing aria from Vivaldi’s motet “Nisi Dominus,” Ariel Freedman has entered, bent over Eric Beauchesne where he sits collapsed backward on a chair, carefully taken his outstretched tongue between her teeth, and pulled him to his feet. Now the two are dancing locked in that position.

The sexual implications are obvious, and the alarming connection itself induces kinesthetic discomfort in viewers. But the duet in no way conveys cruelty. Instead, the care the two performers take in moving, both standing and on the floor, expresses consideration and, yes, tenderness. Neither person moves without the other’s tacit compliance. In the end, Freeman releases Beauchesne, and he reels back to his chair in the fading light.

Lascilo was a hit at Jacob’s Pillow last summer, and since then, the career of the Canadian-born New York resident has been rocketing. Appointed an artist-in-residence at the new Baryshnikov Arts Center in Manhattan, Barton this past year choreographed a solo for Baryshnikov himself and a group work for his Hell’s Kitchen Dance, a touring company composed primarily of graduates and current students from the Juilliard School and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. At the same time, she devised movement for the Broadway production of
The Threepenny Opera.

As its title announces, Lascilo Perdere is about letting things go, and the ravishing sacred and secular music by Vivaldi, plus a selection by the Cracow Klezmer Band (all on tape), accompanies choreography that makes the six black-clad dancers (costumes by Deanna Berg) look as if they’re trying to shed their skins. Courtly games are punctuated by outbursts and ordeals, and the chairs that keep appearing can barely contain their occupants. The dancers gesture obsessively, hurl themselves to the floor, writhe like snakes in heat. In a remarkable solo on a chair, William Briscoe seems to be pulling memories out of himself and casting them away. During another sequence, Charissa Barton, alone, shadows the rocking embrace of a couple behind her. Barton (the choreographer’s sister) also appears in closeup in a black-and-white film shot underwater. She looks calm, even blissful, as tiny bubbles form on her eyelashes and her hair undulates like seaweed, but however cleansing this is for her, you can’t help counting how many seconds she must have held her breath for each take.

Aszure Barton is a skillful choreographer with a very interesting mind. Little in her dances is completely straightforward or uncomplicated. Irritation, discomfort, and willfulness creep into even her most overtly light pieces. The 11 splendid performers in her new Over/Come wear distinctive casual outfits by Wendy Winters and dance to ’50s hit by America’s Andy Williams and Italy’s Giorgio Conte. They lounge, they pose, they try to charm us. Occasionally two will almost kiss and slide apart. But this is no teen fest, and the first thing we hear is a scream. Sometimes the dancers burst into stiff, animated gestures; Todd McQuade vibrates like a wind-up toy running amok. In a tango section, initially set by lighting designer Daniel Ranger against a red background, woman fall onto prone partners and ride them as they crawl away. The marvelous Freedman dances tough and sexy while the others stand in a semicircle and stare. A small, solidly built virtuoso, she can go from tiptoeing around to leaping backward and crashing into a rolling fall, as her moods veer, second by second, between hopeful gaiety and discontent.

Everyone in Over/Come ends up on the floor twitching. In one of the most disquieting scenes, while Williams sings “Are You Sincere?,” Aszure Barton reclaims Ian Robinson, the partner she left behind in the tango crumpled on the floor, and as he braces himself in a semi-pushup, shaking from the effort, she stands for what seems like a very long time on his back, laughing.

Two inconclusive excerpts from another new piece, Short-Lived, also combine vigorous, whipped-on dancing with standing around, and desultory heat with false enjoyment. Freedman, Barton, Briscoe, and Douglas Letheren strut and mince, hips thrust forward, hands in front of them holding an invisible skirt. Letheren embraces Briscoe from behind, manipulates him, and then, hands locked in prayer around him, carries the smaller man away hanging in a standing position like a limp Christ. Briscoe dances the second section, set to a baroque harpsichord adagio, alone. It’s one of the evening’s high points. Briscoe is black, and the way he steps softly in place, bent forward at the hips, rippling his arms in front of him, subtly calls to mind West African styles. But he alternates this meditative, conjuring movement with open, more outwardly directed dancing—his spine erect, his arms spread wide. Gradually he begins to travel the perimeter of a big circle of light. A mesmerizing performer. At the end, when Letheren comes and carries him away for the second time, his feet are still walking.