The Performer: Choreographer Aszure Barton

On discipline, stage fright, and never letting reviews get to you — even the good ones.

The darling of New York’s contemporary dance scene, Edmonton-native Aszure Barton, 34, has been called “extraordinary” and “uncompromising” by no less than Mikhail Baryshnikov. Her company, Azure & Artists, has dazzled audiences on five continents. On Nov. 25, her world première for the National Ballet of Canada will be presented in Toronto, featuring George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments and Jerome Robbins’s Glass Pieces. Barton sat down with Canadian Business editor Steve Maich.

To what do you attribute your success so far?
Stubborn perseverance.

Has that been hard to maintain?
No. You know, I’ve always loved making things. I love it, love it, love it. I think I’ve been incredibly driven by working in collaboration with a group. For me, it’s never been about becoming a famous choreographer, that’s for sure. It’s just something I’ve always done, and people have believed in me, and we’ve created this incredible voice collectively.

When you were growing up, how much time did you dedicate to dance?
Oh, so much. I was a really hyper little child, and so I took classes in everything from theatre to voice to tap to Highland dancing to ballet. I was an athlete. I was a high-jumper and a sprinter and a soccer player. I would train pretty rigorously. It was because I loved it.

Do you consider yourself a competitive person?
Oh, yes! I’m incredibly competitive, very, very much so. Mostly with myself. I’m my harshest critic, for sure. I came to a point this past year of just surrendering and realizing that I may not be where I feel I should be yet, but that’s OK, you know? I will constantly feel that way. I’m self-taught. I’ve been in dance my whole life, but I’ve learned how to choreograph through choreographing. In America, especially, there’s a lot of choreographic education, and for me, it was just something innate. So with every project, it’s sometimes impossible to be where I feel I should be. Or I feel that feeling inside me that says maybe you’ll never get there, maybe in the next lifetime.

Do you think that that competitive nature helps, or does it hurt?
Both. It helps in terms of me producing things and making things happen, but at the same time it can be a really unhealthy thing. I’m just now learning how to take care of myself. I’ve taken on a lot on my own, and I feel like I should be doing that all of the time in order to be the best sort of director, but I’ve kind of been slapped in the face a couple of times and now I’ve realized, “OK, wait a minute, it is important that I take my yoga classes, and take a moment to meditate, or whaever. I’ll only be that much more productive.”

Obviously, in your line of work, physical conditioning is extremely important. What’s your regimen?
I’m working on it! I’m in the director’s chair a lot of the time. So I have to delegate time for myself. I have people on my case all the time, pulling me away from my work, and scheduling in what I call “play time.” And that, for me, is actually going for a run, or going to yoga class, or taking ballet class, so that I’m actually active myself. It’s hugely important for my clarity of my mind, and for not getting too overwhelmed or stressed.

What makes the difference between those who make it to the top of the dance world and those who never break through?
I think it’s a series of things. One, discipline, and just getting through to exactly who you are and not caring what other people think about you. But two, I think it’s timing, and being at the right place at the right time. It also depends on how you view success, I think, because you could be in a small town and really have never been listed in The New York Times and still be incredibly successful, you know? It’s all relative.

Have you ever felt stage fright as a dancer?
Yes, I have. Always.

How do you deal with it?
I still get incredibly nervous. It’s funny, you know, I’ve done tours with a lot of established dancers, and even after, you know, 60 years of performing, some people are just incredibly nervous before the curtain goes up, and I’m definitely one of them. Still.

Are there any tricks that you can use to deal with it?
Yeah. It sounds really weird, but I lie in a push-up position to really feel the floor. When I’m on my feet a lot, I’m not breathing really well, so the closer I am to the floor, I feel a lot more grounded and that helps me breathe.

How do you deal with critics?
I’ve been lucky in terms of geting some really amazing support and feedback from the public, but then early on I had some really smart people say to me, you know, “Aszure, if you are listening to these good/bad reviews and letting those things go to your head, and if you let it become about your ego, you know that you have to take into consideration all that nasty shit — excuse my language — that will be said about you as well.” I would never change my work because of someone else’s criticism. Sometimes, I will find myself going, “OK, well, from someone’s perspective will this read?” And it’s important to think of the audience, absolutely. But at the core of it you always have to stay true to what you really feel, because you’re not going to please everyone all of the time.

What do you consider your greatest achievement in your career so far?
I would say I’m doing them right now. I’ve been so lucky in the past five, six years. It’s constant work, and being able to do what I love to do and make a living at it. Also, getting to work with some incredible people. I did a piece for Mr. Baryshnikov, which was really exhilarating. Now I’m working with the National Ballet of Canada, which has been pretty nostalgic for me, because I trained there. Coming back to it from a different perspective, it’s all exciting.