Last spring, when choreographer Aszure Barton was at the Banff Centre for the arts in the Canadian Rockies, she had a strange dream. As she slept, she saw a dancer submerged under water—in a rocking chair.
"It was bizarre," she said cheerfully by phone last week from Vancouver, where her troupe, Aszure Barton and Artists, was performing. "I said, maybe this is a sign."
Working with a videographer and her adventurous dancers, Barton brought her dream images into the dance she was making. Several dancers took the rocking chair role, consenting to be filmed underwater. They managed to breathe, she said with a laugh, and, even more important, not to freeze, no small consideration given Banff's elevation of 4,800 feet.
Their video images are projected throughout Awáa, an evening-length dance work that debuted in June at the Canada Dance Festival and has since toured Australia.
Tucsonans will get a chance to see Awáa this Saturday night, when the multimedia work makes its U.S. premiere at Centennial Hall. Seven dancers will perform the 70-minute piece to specially commissioned music. Two composers, Canadian Curtis Macdonald and Russian composer/violist Lev Zhurbin, put together a score that combines seemingly disparate elements. Traditional musical notes created by percussion and strings are mixed with the sounds of water and ice recorded in the surrounding mountains.
"The two composers are such polar opposites, but they're well balanced," she said. In fact, the piece is all about opposites. "It celebrates polarity, yin and yang."
The music may be percussive, but the movements are curving and fluid. And while the theme is partly Mother Earth and the Feminine, Barton leaves the dancing to six men and just one woman.
"It celebrates the spirit and physicality," she said.
The dancers are "the soul of the work, each with a distinct personality." And with an hour and 10 minutes of nonstop movement, "they dance their asses off."
The peripatetic Barton, just 37 years old, is much in demand as an independent choreographer. She completed an extraordinary number of commissions in the past year, and those seven works were for institutions as different as the high-mountain Banff, the Houston Ballet and NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.
"It was crazy, insanity," she said. "But I survived. I feel lucky. I love it very much."
Her work has been described alternately as elegant and clowning, graceful and bizarre. Dance magazine went so far as to call her dances a "three-ring circus ... witty and impetuously wild."
Can they possibly be all of these things at one and the same time?
"Hopefully!" Barton said.
Her eclectic creations reflect not only her broad training, but also an unusually creative childhood. Her father and sisters are listed a nominal troupe members on her website, in honor of the joyful dancing they did together as a family back in Edmonton, Alberta.
"I'm the baby. I grew up following my two older sisters," she said. "They danced and I followed in their footsteps."
Her mother loved ballet and her father "was a natural. He always danced with us. Stood us up on his feet." He even performed with Aszure Barton and Dancers this year in Banff.
Barton did tap as a little kid, and eventually studied ballet and jazz. And before she went off to Toronto at 14 to study at the selective National Ballet School, she was a track and field star, excelling at the high jump. At 16, she studied ballet at the highly regarded John Cranko School in Germany.
When she went pro, she first danced ballet with the National Ballet of Canada, then jazz with Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal. After that, it was off to New York to dance cutting-edge contemporary with the Wendy Osserman Dance Company.
Yet during all those years, she was creating her own dances. First she and her sisters made up dances on their own, but Barton started choreographing formally "at school, at 15," she said.
By 2002, she was ready to start her own troupe, and immediately began attracting notice. When Mikhail Baryshnikov sought an artist in residence for his new Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York in 2005, he didn't have far to look.
"I was the first artist ... in the new space," she said. "I had 13 young artists from Juilliard and two or three weeks to develop a new piece. There were no other obligations. I was told, 'Here's a space, here are the dancers, have fun."
The dancers invited an acting company performing in one of the center's theaters to watch their work, and the play's director, Scott Elliott, came along. He was then planning a revival of Brecht's The Threepenny Opera for Broadway.
"They came, and Scott Elliot said to me on the spot, 'I love what you do. Would you want to choreograph the Broadway show?' It was a New York moment," Barton said. With the dances she created for Threepenny, Barton made her choreographic Broadway debut in 2006, at the age of 31.
Barton runs her company as a pickup troupe, a setup that allows her time for her choreography commissions and gives the dancers the leeway to work in other companies. She's got a strong contingent of Juilliard grads among the seven dancers in Awáa; among them, they've worked with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, Hell's Kitchen Dance, Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal and others.
But Barton has worked with most of the dancers on and off for years. Lara Barclay "went to school with me 20 years ago at the National Ballet. We had been wanting to get back together and team up. William Briscoe has been working with me for 10 years, since my first and second year in New York."
Barton still dances occasionally, but she doesn't perform in Awáa.
"In new work I tend to shy away from dancing. I'm better at choreography. I'm in my element."