Soft versus sharp. Jagged versus smooth. Playful versus serious.
The work of Canadian choreographer Aszure Barton and LA dance impresario Jacob Jonas could not be more different.
But at the Ford Amphitheatre earlier this August, their juxtaposition—Aszure Barton’s “Awáa” on August 18 and Jonas’ “On Me” on August 19 — was complementary.
Barton’s “Awáa” — the choreographer’s first piece shown in Los Angeles since the choreographer moved to the city — begins in a warm and familiar place, under the rays of the sun, or perhaps in the glow of a growing womb.
Dancer William Briscoe appears like a sun worshipper in front of a glowing red orb — his outstretched arms reverently cupping this source of light, his silhouette appearing like the first signs of life in a fertilized ovum.
From a reverent devotee of Aten to a teetering toddler finding his footing on newfound legs, Briscoe goes on a figurative journey from conception to birth in a matter of microseconds, but once he makes the transition, we’re fully immersed in Barton’s sinuous and liquid choreography — as complex and complicated as the vagaries of the human heart, which “Awáa” also explores.
Lara Barclay and Tobin Del Cuore make a compelling couple (perhaps the parents of little Briscoe) throughout the evening-length work. Beginning on the ground in one duet, they slowly work their way up to standing, as if illustrating the evolution of a relationship in reverse. Their intimate snuggle on the floor — reminiscent of a couple of wound up in morning-after sheets — rewinds to hesitant handholding, the kind that might happen on a first date.
Their relationship moves from familiar to strange, but also ascends to spectacular heights. The pair repeats a stunning sequence in each of their duets. Del Cuore balances Barclay on his thighs and lifts her up, as she extends her arm toward the sky — her hand aspiring to touch the stars.
Then by some miraculous maneuvering Del Cuore is able to turn Barclay over and place her precisely on the floor — one foot touching the ground, the other flicked behind her, like Hermes circling the Earth with one strident finishing kick behind him.
But “Awáa” has a down-to-earth side, as well as a celestial one. William Briscoe and Jonathan Alsberry make for a charming pair of twins, who scuttle about Barclay and cling to her breast. And you know a dance party is on when the ensemble brings out a bevy of big and buoyant balloons. Then Briscoe, Alsberry and Kurt Douglas break out into a Beyonce-esque dance trio of shimmies, Voguing and pretending to dance in high heels. Curtis MacDonald and Lev Ljova Zhurbin’s percussive rhythm— filled with the sounds of playful sloshes, splashes and gurgles — carries them through.
But the most striking chord of “Awáa” is its simplest. When Barclay picks up Briscoe at the dance’s end and carries him off into the glow of that luminescent orb, it’s a heart-melting reminder that the umbilical bond between mother and child may last far beyond the womb.
If “Awáa” emanates the warmth and love of a mother’s embrace, then Jonas’ “On Me,” which made its debut at the Ford, is a meditation on the struggle of finding your way in a cold, high-pressure world.
Canadian-based composer Tim Hecker’s electronic score roils the air, like a sonic roar scrapping across the Arctic tundra.
But Jonas’ ensemble doesn’t flinch under this abrasive soundscape — their minds and bodies concentrated on the stunts ahead — explosive flips, scissor-sharp kicks and balances that never quiver or shake.
Perched on bent backs and prowed hips, one dancer looks like Galatea incarnate, others appear like abstract architectural elements — human cantilevers or pagodas.
Even when performing the most exacting moves or expressions of stillness, the dancers maintain a Zen-like calm, never wavering from their commitment to the work and its taxing — even violent — feats.
Punches and pushes look almost real, executed with force and ferocity. Oft times a single dancer is picked out for punishment — pushed down to her knees with a violent shove or pounced upon by the menacing mob of dancers. If one dancer steps out of line, the rest quickly act to suppress him — even if that means crushing him.
At the piece’s start, the dancers form a dog pile on top of break dancer Jacob “Kujo” Lyons again and again. Even when he explosively spins on his head or thrashes his legs around, he cannot seem to get the relentless horde off his back.
The idiom “carrying the weight of the world on one’s shoulders” may be translated too literally here, but it does create a striking image — a Gordian knot of limbs and legs and bodies — a beautiful mess. And a reminder that we’re only human…wonderfully so.