If you’ve ever been responsible for young children, you remember, deep in your bones, how exhausting it can be just to go out for a walk when you’ve got one toddler hanging on your leg and another astride your hip and they want to go anywhere but where you’re headed, and one trips and the other lunges into space like a spilled bag of groceries and everyone ends up on the ground in a bad mood.
In such a dispiriting mess, Aszure Barton finds beauty and grace.
Her “Awaa,” performed this weekend at Rockville’s American Dance Institute, reimagines both the burdens and blessings of motherhood — and other forms of creation — in a kind of watery paradise, where everything, first steps as well as missteps, is slippery and light.
It is an extraordinary work, full of fantasy and surprises, yet grounded in recognizable behaviors. The seven excellent dancers in Barton’s troupe, Aszure Barton & Artists, interact with a childlike sense of wonder, and we’re swept up in their awed discoveries.
“Awaa” means “one who is a mother” in the language of Haida Gawaii, a chain of islands on the north coast of British Columbia. Perhaps it is in tribute to that remote part of her homeland that Barton, who hails from Edmonton, Alberta, has given her hour-long work a somewhat indigenous sensibility, with tribal drums and watery sounds in the original music by Curtis MacDonald and Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin.
While the mothering images are strongest, “Awaa” is a tribute to life-giving forces of many sorts, including the oceans, old-style river baptisms and the fruitfulness of uninhibited play.
Dreamy and slow, with a lush sense of resistance, the six male dancers often took on the aspects of babies. Somehow, that wasn’t as ridiculous as it sounds. These were sophisticated little man-munchkins, scooting across the floor on their bottoms with the precision of Rockettes, or picking their noses with pioneering delight. The lone woman, tall, goddesslike Lara Barclay, shadowed their labors and even toted one around on her hip a couple of times with the ease of an angel.
Tobin Del Cuore’s witty video and Burke Brown’s lighting and stage design immersed us in a surreal atmosphere. At one point, the dancers hid behind big red balloons, and their faces appeared projected on them, making fish lips and googly eyes at us. Linda Chow’s costumes, especially the draped, filmy gowns in red and ivory for Barclay, were keenly made for movement. A sweet melancholy threads through the music.
At one point Barclay performed a rippling samba, as if a tropical breeze was sweeping through her bones. Two of the men lifted her over their heads, sailing her through the air; then the reverie ended and they whooshed her into the wings. Was it a mother’s brief dream of escape, inspired by a snatch of music but over in a jiffy? Near the end, she canoodled with one of the dancers when another dashed between them, the way kids are prone to do, and the romantic moment vanished.
So it is in life. Light and dark are in constant flux. But typically, the extremes get all the attention. It’s the anguishes and ecstasies that mostly interest us; the ability to cope rarely makes for a compelling story. But in Barton’s hands, equanimity provides a rich vein of material, and serenity is a deeply moving aesthetic.