Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Busking with Aszure Barton

Pretty but a little vacant: Andrew Murdock in Busk.

Becoming a true artist requires talent - obviously.

But it also requires a topic, too.  A theme.

And while choreographer Aszure Barton clearly has the first of these requirements in spades, after her debut concert at Celebrity Series last weekend, I'm not sure she has the second.  (In fact I kind of doubt it.)

Which isn't to say that there aren't pleasures to be had from her work, or from her company, Aszure and Artists, which is almost overstuffed with talent and ability; that much was clear from their dazzling, fearless performance.  They even have a style - a jazzy virtuosity built around casual, everyday moves that suddenly speed up into exaggerated motifs from break dance or modern, or even ballet.  It's a fluid mix that affords these talented and impeccably trained dancers the chance to say anything they might want to say.

But . . . do they have anything to say?  I was left in the dark about that.  In fact, I have no idea at all what the first of the two dances on Barton's program, Blue Soup, was about.  It purported to be a mash-up of several of her earlier pieces - so I hoped for some sense of development to be evident in the work, along with perhaps a statement of pre-occupying themes, or even (this would have been nice) a sense of a dawning self-consciousness.  In short, this was Barton's chance at an artistic introduction, and even a bit of biography.

Instead, I got zip.  Well, I got soup.  I mean it's a charming dance, a jauntily off-hand mix of pin-point solos and unison dances.  The performers are clothed in loose, but fashionable, blue suits; they saunter about confidently, with a happy what-the-hell air (sometimes their hands are in their pockets) in between bursts of sudden "choreography."  They know they're hot, and so, to be fair, are many of their moves.

Especially in the solos, you can feel a fleet, light-footed grace in Barton's pastiche of styles.  But literally nothing develops, despite the dancers' confidence.  There's no structure, and not even any links between the various episodes - which never achieve anything like a rhythm.  And occasionally strange things happen for no reason, like the moment when everyone suddenly yells "AMERICA!"  When the dance is over you clap in appreciation, but only think to yourself,  "Well, that was nice."  And then you can't think of anything else to think.

The second half of the program, Busk, is a little bit better - it's still episodic, but the "scenes" all share a common theme. Barton has said her title is drawn from the Spanish "buscar" - "to search" - rather than the familiar rite of street busking; nevertheless, she opens the dance with a solo from an obvious busker (Barton herself), in a black hoodie and white gloves, who ends up trying to work the audience from the edge of the stage.  After this seeming "overture," the piece stretches out into a fluid set of variations on that commercially seductive situation, all set to a rollicking, gypsy-tinged score.  We meet a mime, and an acrobat, and a lady contortionist (Emily Oldak); somebody even rides through on a unicycle.  The dancers take turns as performer and audience, and there's also a dark-clad chorus that sweeps through the "street" occasionally, perhaps a gaggle of monks or priests (I suppose they're buskers too, aren't they!).  Dancers shimmy and swivel, pop and leap and even do back flips; a modern twist will morph into a balletic turn, which then collapses into a somersault down a set of stairs. Sometimes the performers are on their toes, then are suddenly back down on their heels.  The only constant is that every scene and solo is a montage of references; Barton samples and samples, and then samples some more.  And it's all gorgeous and sexy - with Andrew Murdock (above) and Ben Wardell probably the stand-outs in what's a rivetingly beautiful company.

But at the end of the piece, Barton enters again - and strips herself "naked" (well, down to a bra and panties), then slowly "crawls" off-stage.  To some viewers, this amounted to a statement; and actually, I thought it was a statement, too - only one whose content troubled me.  For Busk could easily be read as a kind of confession from someone who knew only too well how to seduce a crowd - but also knew that said seduction would lead nowhere; the busk itself was its own be-all and end-all.

Indeed, thanks to her minute-by-minute choreographic command, Ms. Barton has indeed busked much of the dance establishment (she's a protégée of none other than Mikhail Baryshnikov himself).  But I'm afraid I'm going to be a hold-out on this particular street corner.  I mean should a dance, however virtuosic, be no more than a busk?  I have no doubt at all that once Ms. Barton finds her true themes, she will immediately be a dance-maker to reckon with.  But I think I'll hold off on the "serious artist" accolades until that happens.

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