Canadian-born, New York-based choreographer Aszure Barton is back at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre this week with her own company, Aszure Barton and Artists, as part of a Chutzpah! Plus event. The 70-minute Awáa, set to a contrastive strings and brass score commissioned from the Russian violinist Lev Zhurbin and the Canadian saxophonist Curtis MacDonald, was created by Barton while she was an artist-in-residence at the Banff Centre, and features video projections (by multi-talented company dancer Tobin Del Cuore) filmed in the Centre's pool that Barton was inspired to shoot after a particularly vivid dream.
The work certainly has a dream-like, underwater feel to it, especially in the way Barton's bold visual style and sense of theatrical whimsy are married to her seven amazing dancers' impossibly fluid movements, in which arms and heads and torsos extend and ripple out from the body's core like seaweed swaying at the bottom of the ocean floor. A sense of buoyancy is imbued in everything from one dancer's simple toe-rise and modified port-au-bras to the full company's simultaneous shifting of their weight from one hip to another as, sitting with legs outstretched, one foot resting on the other, they drag themselves horizontally across the stage, much like a line of sea crabs.
The company itself is made up of six male and one female dancers, and if there is a thematic through-line to the piece it would seem to revolve around motherhood and masculinity (the title Awáa evokes the sound of both a baby's cry and young child's pronouncing of "water"). In this, Barton's episodic compositional style is both a strength and a weakness, as inevitably some set-pieces--particularly the duets between the riveting and charismatic Lara Barclay and successive male partners--feel more thematically integral and choreographically complex than others. Indeed, the group scenes between the men seem to me to retreat from what I thought would have been a logical opportunity to explore the homosocial dynamics of male bonding, particularly in relation to the mother figure. There are no explicit sequences of male partnering in the piece.
Instead, over and over again the fluidity and ambiguity of male sexuality in Awáa is displaced onto Barton's trio of African-American dancers, who in a bravura sequence late in the piece together reference African tribal dance, Supremes-style girl group shimmying, and the sashaying of drag ball voguing. It was thrilling to watch, but when upon exiting the stage one of the dancers shouts out an Alvin Ailey-esque "Take me to the river," one wonders if Barton isn't trading a bit too heavily on cultural stereotypes.
Such, of course, are the risks of tapping so directly into the unconscious. We can never be sure where our imaginations will take us. We can only applaud Barton for daring to go there--and for inviting us along for the ride.