As the summer of 2006 drew to a close, Santa Barbara’s dance scene bathed in the afterglow of an exceptional few months. Mikhail Baryshnikov had returned to town alongside a gifted young dance artist from New York, and the freshness of their intergenerational exchange was what really made sparks fly.
That young artist was Aszure Barton, a New York-based choreographer who had caught the eye of Dianne Vapnek, Summerdance’s executive director, for her unusual blend of exquisite technique and daring, theatrical work. That summer, after a world tour with Baryshnikov, Barton and a group of her dancers returned to Santa Barbara for a Summerdance residency. They led masterclasses, held open rehearsals, and gave performances that the city’s dance lovers were still talking about three months later when the 10-year-old festival announced an end to its programming.
That the city has gone without the creative energy of Summerdance for two years now makes recent news even sweeter. On February 8, Barton and nine of her dancers return to town for a month-long residency sponsored by DANCEworks, a new partnership between Summerdance, which kept its nonprofit status despite suspending operations, and the Lobero Theatre Foundation. The Lobero has committed its Towbes Family Endowment for Dance, and will bring one dance artist or company for a month-long residency each year for at least the next three years. Each residency will culminate in a performance on the Lobero stage.
According to David Asbell, the Lobero Foundation’s executive director, it was Vapnek who approached the theater with the proposal for the collaboration. “Dianne is taking the lead,” he explained. “That’s wonderful for us. I’ve long been a fan of her choices. She doesn’t shy away from things with great artistic value.” Speaking about the upcoming residency recently, Vapnek explained, “I was trying to distill the most important contribution Summerdance had made. When we started in 1997, our primary mission was to build audiences for dance locally. In 2006, we felt we had done that. But the piece of the festival that really intrigued me-the piece I felt had had a lasting impact on the lives and careers of the dancers-was simply the opportunity of uninterrupted time and space to make new work.”
What makes DANCEworks unusual-maybe even unique in the United States-is that the dancers will be given the Lobero stage throughout their rehearsal process, allowing them to create work in the performance space from the beginning. For Barton, that’s an opportunity to jump at.
“It’s one of the most exciting experiences that my group has ever had,” she said recently, on the phone from New York. “It’s such a rare opportunity to work in a theater like this for four weeks; I’ve never had this long. I was initially thinking I wouldn’t be able to bring this many dancers, but then I thought, I can’t not go full out for this thing.”
Since her last visit to Santa Barbara, Barton has been garnering acclaim at home and abroad. She recently returned from Australia, where she set a new work on the Sydney Dance Company to rave reviews. While in Sydney, Barton met fashion and costume designer Michelle Jank who will join the company in Santa Barbara, a development Barton is particularly excited about. “Michelle is an amazing designer,” she said. “Our vision is really complementary.” Barton also plans to incorporate music from Russian maverick viola composer Ljova.
Audiences who saw Barton’s “Lascilo Perdere” at Center Stage Theater in 2006 will remember a riveting male/female duet performed with his tongue caught between her teeth. But Barton’s work encompasses a whole world: luscious, full-bodied dancing, scenes of great poignancy, and comic moments that catch you by surprise. “I hope people in Santa Barbara are going to be aware and interested and able to communicate with us and get involved,” Barton said. “Not many theaters are willing or able to share their space for this long. It’s a big deal.”
Aszure Barton &Artists performs at the Lobero Theatre on Friday, March 6, and Saturday, March 7, at 8 p.m. For tickets, call 963-0761 or visit lobero.com. The company offers four master classes to the public, and observers are welcome. For a full schedule or to reserve a spot, call 966-6950 or visit sbdancealliance.org. For more on the company, visit aszurebarton.com.