Aszure Barton just recently relocated to Los Angeles. She was born in Canada and trained at the National Ballet School of Canada and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet before starting a successful career as a choreographer creating works for and collaborating with some of the best dance artists and companies in the world.

Aszure Barton & Artists © Timothy Norris, courtesy of the Ford Theatres
Aszure Barton & Artists
© Timothy Norris, courtesy of the Ford Theatres

Her ballet background is evident, but not central to her choreography for this recent work titled AWÁA, making its local première at the John Anson Ford Theaters in collaboration with The Music Center On Location. What is not clear is exactly how all the different images seen throughout AWÁA are related.

In the language of Haida Gwaii, a chain of islands on the west coast of British Columbia, the word AWÁA means “one who is a mother”. This theme was clear in several sections, but infused with unconnected images and dance styles. The dancers are beautifully trained and it is wonderful to watch them move.

One fine element of AWÁA is its overall quality of calmness. If you are happy with simply watching beautiful bodies move through space and underwater images appearing intermittently, then you will thoroughly enjoy Barton’s AWÁA. For me, however, even though many of her ideas are good, Barton has not yet mastered the craft of making a full-evening work.

Aszure Barton & Artists © Timothy Norris, courtesy of the Ford Theatres
Aszure Barton & Artists
© Timothy Norris, courtesy of the Ford Theatres

When Barton stays true to the theme of Motherhood, the choreography is strong; the movement phrases are interesting and stirring. A woman and man unite in a relationship, a child is born, finds his legs and gains his independence. She cares for her child, or children, and teaches him or them to walk before leaving to carry on without her.

The cast of AWÁA includes one woman, Lara Barclay, and seven men, Jonathan Alsberry, William Briscoe, Tobin Del Cuore, Kurt Douglas, Joseph Kudra, Brett Perry, and Riley Watts. I presume that by not including any other females, Barton wishes to put a total focus on Barclay as the mother figure.

But, it is the opening image that is the most powerful and the most memorable image from AWÁA. The Ford stage is darkly lit with a large, intense red orb dominating the space. The silhouette of a solitary figure represents an unborn child inside the womb. He stirs, begins to awkwardly move forward while testing his balance, and eventually learns to walk securely. This leads into a group unison of rhythmic, in-place quarter turns with subtle head movements that is simply dropped to make room for a sensual male solo.

Barclay powerfully performs a laborious solo that turns into a duet with her child. She supports him, teaches him and lets him go. During this duet, a video of a man floating in water is projected against the back steps of the Ford stage. The duet is tender and fondly reminds us of a mother’s love.

Barton repeats her theme of man and woman meeting, having a child and the mother taking on most of the upbringing. She helps Barclay shift personas by costuming her in different outfits, but the idea becomes repetitive. At times, I felt submerged in a mother’s warmth, but far too often, I was ripped away from that comfort zone and placed into an unrelated environment.

Aszure Barton & Artists © Timothy Norris, courtesy of the Ford Theatres
Aszure Barton & Artists
© Timothy Norris, courtesy of the Ford Theatres

The work includes many gorgeous images. Dancers walk along the back carrying different sizes of red balls, accumulating into three very large white ones that become projection screens. These images are the exact same disembodied male faces seen projected on the two light towers before the show begins. One projection includes Barclay underwater sitting in a rocking chair as a man dives into the water in front of her. Is he submerged inside the mother’s protective womb? Another time, there are five men sitting on different levels along the slanted stone wall upstage simply observing.

The evening’s “show stopper” is a section that makes crystal clear that Barton has not connected the dots of this hour-long work. It is an Afro-modern style trio that is laced with outlandish, effeminate and stereotypical drag queen strutting, performed brilliantly by Jonathan Alsberry, William Briscoe and Kurt Douglas. Brilliant, but why is it in this dance?

The music score by Curtis MacDonald and Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin (with additional tracks by Johannes Brahms and Gal Costa) shifts abruptly with the dance. Lyrical music awkwardly becomes loud rhythmical drumming or jerks into yet another musical genre. The lighting by Burke Brown is very beautiful, making the recently renovated Ford Theater come alive. The Ford Theatre’s lighting system, however, demonstrated that it has some obvious bugs to sort out.

In the end, it is the dancers and the stunning images that make AWÁA well worth seeing.