Hubbard Street Creates Space for Patience With Aszure Barton Residency


A modest table of hors-d’oevres and an ample array of alcoholic beverages greeted me when I arrived at the Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC) headquarters, tucked away on the 4th floor of Water Tower Place, for a reception to welcome choreographer Aszure Barton as the acclaimed Canadian/American dance artist begins a three-year artist’s residency with HSDC. The come-and-go residency will include creating new work and setting some of her established repertoire on the company.

After helping myself to a plate of crudités and cheese, I rounded the corner into a dining area where I joined a small gathering of invited guests seated at tables in a happy gathering of dance lovers, almost all of them major arts donors and well-heeled Hubbard Street groupies. To whet their appetite for giving, we were treated to a rehearsal of Barton’s “return to patience” (2015), which she was setting on the company.

The faint strains of a waltz seeped into the dining area like a strand of auditory smoke from behind another alcove, signaling that the rehearsal was beginning. We found seats lining the back wall of the airy Pritzker Foundation Studio where the 14 Hubbard Street dancers were already going through their paces.

Barton and rehearsal director/assistant Jonathan (Jojo) Alsberry sat against the wall with written notes, lap-top and DVD player, something equivalent to an orchestra conductor’s master score. Jojo was running the rehearsal, reconstructing Barton’s choreography on HSDC. The dancers, dressed in an array of sweats, shorts, halter tops, leg warmers and Hubbard Street T-shirts, washed across the space en masse. Sometimes walking, sometimes in a rush of unison waves, they de-crystallized into fractal variants of form and rhythm, creating both rhythmic and spatial canons.

Barton and Jojo stopped them periodically to fix minute details of solo dancer Aaron Choate’s head angle, the height of a leg extension, or the level of their extended arm.

Vast, sweeping leg extensions and arms radiating breath and energy expanded the boundaries of the room in group movement. Body-hugging gestures folded inward; turned-in elbows and knees soothed a wounded core.

Diminutive Shota Miyoshi joined Choate in a male/non-binary duet of contrasts, with the height and muscular power of Choate manipulating the diminutive Miyoshi overhead and into plunging dives. They traced each other’s body shape, lifting, twisting, sliding across each other’s planes. The extreme specificity of musical notes to physical gesture that Alsberry and Barton called for was especially striking.

“Eyes to eyes,” Alsberry coached the two dancers as Choate gently slid their hand around Miyoshi’s neck, balancing and rotating their partner’s reclining body in the process.

The choreographer’s fascination with negative space and contrasting size took my attention in this duet, as well as in a male/female pairing between tiny Alysia Johnson and robust Matt Wenckowski. Their physical geometry of lifts, swan dives, and snake-like slivers around each other unveiled Barton’s physical realization of our need for connection.

A surge of group-action mechanics contrasted in a segment of brusque automaton-like gestures. Super-wide second position pliés, pancake hands, and a vast wingspan of arms telescoped to inhuman proportions and propelled the ensemble in motorized flight. Squared-off arm gestures in punched stop-action positions made a nuanced reference to Barton’s ballet beginnings.

“The power is in the pull of the knee,” Alsberry coached as the group rotated in successive renversés at off-balance angles, alternating with squiggles, twitches, and melting. Barton’s range of emotion spans both depth and breadth in her visualization of the human heart in space and time. What a thrill to watch it play out in rehearsal! But there was more.

One-half hour into the program, Jojo brought the rehearsal to a close. Executive Director David McDermott stepped out from the audience, microphone in hand, giving thanks to all— donors who made the evening possible, the dancers, and Aszure Barton, former HSDC managing director Gail Kalver was recognized as the visionary who helped put the Hubbard Street on the map as one of the leading dance companies world-wide.

Artistic director Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, vibrant in an amber sundress, literally glowed with enthusiasm welcoming Barton and two of the dancers to join her for a Q&A. “First, tell us,” she asked Barton, “how did you get here, to this moment? Where are you just coming from?”

Barton, completely guileless, sported baggy jaguar-print shorts, black sneakers and socks, and no make-up. Her honey-tinged shoulder-length hair fell casually across her face and made her look even younger than her 30-something years. Barton’s modest affect concealed a dynamo core of creative energy bursting at the seams with innovative ideas. She had just flown into Chicago from Hamburg, Germany, where she had been setting a work on the Hamburg Ballet.

When asked what the three-year artist residency with Hubbard Street meant for her, she said, “It’s an opportunity to go deeper now, at this phase of my career.” Reconstructing and setting “return to patience” on HSDC characterized the whole residency for her, promising the rare luxury of a stretch of time to let the welcoming creative environment of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago infuse their collaboration with the patience to let time and space work their own, unpredictable magic on each other.

“My goal is to create a space for patience,” she said. Love definitely figured into the subtext of her answer. Barton fell in love with Hubbard Street when she first saw them perform at the Joyce Theatre in New York, and she proposed a collaboration. Setting “BUSK” (2009) on the company was the result.

Asked what it’s like to see her work performed, she replied, “I don’t really see it, I feel it. I’m not intellectual about the work—it’s pure intuition. It’s about my guts; it’s about process and creating presence in real time.” She describes the anxiety that plagued early decades of her life and career. She credits her collaborations with Alsberry, and more recently, composer/trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, with influencing her self-described transformation from someone who planned every last detail before a rehearsal to trusting the spontaneity of being in the moment with the dancers. Barton found Hubbard Street’s creative process perfectly in sync with that approach to the work.

Linda-Denise noted Barton’s broad range of movement vocabulary—drawing from ballet, jazz, modern, hip-hop, martial arts, gymnastics, and other non-dance movement uniquely her own. Thematic diversity and the integral use of a wide range of music also characterize her prolific output.

“Where BUSK is in your face,” Linda-Denise observed, “return to patience is in your spirit”

“Learning Aszure’s work as a student at Juilliard taught me about sensitivity, how she creates,” said Hubbard Street dancer Alysia Johnson.

“BUSK is saturated, dense, condensed; everything is choreographed,” HSDC dancer and Juilliard grad Morgan Clune chimed in. She contrasted the two pieces, noting that with Return, there’s some wiggle room for the dancers to make individual choices.

One question came from the audience. “How do you pick your music?”

Barton’s face broke into unrestrained joy. “Great question!” She catalogued a complex and constant relationship to music, including extensive collecting, listening, and commissioning, describing music as an equal partner in the choreographic process. “I have a sacred relationship to music.”

 When asked what she wants the audience to take away from seeing her work, Barton said, “I want to change the breath of somebody watching, to create space for that, for listening and being, and the possibility of transforming a space.” That she does!

We can only hold our collective breath in anticipation of Hubbard Street’s next season at the Harris Theater, (November 2-5, 2023) and Barton’s new work, promised for February 22, 2024. Here is an artist with a unique voice and vision for our times. Don’t miss Hubbard Street or Aszure Barton. You’re in for a treat!