Mary Barton, a former principal dancer with the American Repertory Ballet, now the ARB’s resident choreographer, may not be onstage with the ensemble during performances, but she says she is moving right along with the company, even from her seat.
“It’s that way in rehearsals and in shows,” she says. “I am along for the ride, still feeling the music in my body. Once you’ve been a dancer for life, you’ll always feel like you’re part of the performance.”
As a classical ballet dancer since her teen years, Barton has performed some of ballet’s most famed roles. For example, in the mid-1980s, Robert Joffrey created the role of Clara for her, in the world premiere of the Joffrey Ballet’s new “Nutcracker.” Barton has also danced the role of Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake,” Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet,” and Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Now Barton is being applauded as a choreographer. “I still try to take classes as much as I can, and when stuff goes ‘full throttle,’ it’s hard, but I feel like myself when I am in dancer shape,” she says. “That’s what makes me feel like I am on the right path, and that facilitates the choreography. I am able to go into a room and react with the music. I film it, see what I like and what I don’t like, and then I pass that on to the dancers.”
Celebrating Barton’s 15 years creating choreography for the company, and seven years as resident choreographer, American Repertory Ballet opens its 2017-’18 season with the program titled “Woman of Dance: Celebrating the Work of Mary Barton.” The performances will be Friday and Saturday, September 22 and 23, at 7:30 p.m. at the Bart Luedeke Center on the campus of Rider University.
Look for such signature works as Barton’s “Straight Up With a Twist” — her very first piece as the ARB’s resident choreographer — as well as “Five Men and a Concerto,” set to the strong drive and melody of Vivaldi’s “Concerto for Oboe,” and “Scarlet Sonata,” a recent, and technically challenging creation. The latter, which premiered earlier this year, is a chance to showcase five of ARB’s women dancers, who are “strong and fierce and capable,” according to Barton.
“I have wonderful female dancers, and there are many facets to their personalities,” Barton says, speaking during a rehearsal break. She says “Scarlet Sonata” was a present for her female dancers, a way to show them off.
She describes the work as “an exploration of classical lines viewed through a contemporary dance lens.” The dancers are featured in duets, solos, and group work, and the ballet “reveals them as the ethereal, whimsical, sophisticated, graceful, intelligent, powerful dancers they are.”
The piece began with a costuming idea. In her mind’s eye Barton saw sleek, long-sleeved red leotards, just leotards with flesh tights. Then came the music: for “Scarlet Sonata” Barton chose the Violin Sonata No. 3, Opus 128, by Joachim Raff, a prolific German-Swiss composer of the 19th century.
“I wanted music from (another) century, but with a modern kind of feel,” Barton says. “I found this piece by Raff. It sounded very romantic, but then all of a sudden, it went a little ‘off,’ the violin went crazy, with a gypsy kind of theme. So there’s quirkiness and there’s rhythm.”
“I am always driven by the music first, I listen to it over and over again, then I go into the studio, turn the camera on and start dancing,” Barton says, explaining her creative process. “I was (working out) the rhythm and the steps, and those steps turned out to be challenging.”
Discovering Raff, Barton feels she uncovered a treasure trove of compositions. “Just tons of music,” she says. “I was really excited to find him, as he was popular in his time but is lesser-known now. I like to start fresh, and it’s hard to find music that other people haven’t done pieces to.”
It was music that also sparked the creation of “Five Men and a Concerto,” particularly the slower movement of Vivaldi’s Concerto for Oboe. “Although the opening movement sounds heroic, the concerto has a very beautiful adagio section, and that’s what drew me to it,” Barton says. “I wanted flowing music, but with a masculine feel to it. It sounded quite manly to me, but then the oboe does an intricate weave, so I put in some nice footwork and beats to challenge the men and show them off.”
The final piece of the evening will be Barton’s renowned “Straight Up With a Twist,” which, true to its name, is basically ballet with a twist. “That’s how I came up with the name: it’s definitely ballet, but with these off-kilter moments,” she says.
The title also evokes a refreshing drink or cocktail, even a glass of champagne. Indeed, the piece is populated with “bubbly” characters, “not people exactly, and not creatures either, just kind of mysterious sprites,” Barton says.
The work is set to the eclectic sounds of Kaila Flexer and Third Ear, which blends a little bit of gypsy jazz with Arabic rhythms, both genres of music being especially challenging for classical ballet.
“The music is really cool — a bass, a violin, marimba, and percussion,” Barton says. “It’s based on Bulgarian folk music and klezmer, as Kaila’s great-grandparents were well-known klezmer artists. To me, it also has a 1920s feel and sounds like a speakeasy. You might hear Arabic rhythms in there too, since Kaila puts lots of world music into her pieces. The music keeps changing in feeling.”
ARB’s artistic director Douglas Martin reflects that “Woman of Dance” is really a two-fold celebration, “honoring (Mary’s) contribution over the last seven years as ARB’s resident choreographer, as well as acknowledging her role as choreographer to this organization for the past 15 years,” he says. “Mary’s work is a testimonial to the strength of female choreographers in America today.”
Martin may be a bit pre-disposed in praising Barton, as the two have been married for years, in fact the Lawrence Township couple recently celebrated their 28th wedding anniversary. They also used to dance together, and Barton says Martin was “just really a joy” as a partner.
Born in Singapore and raised in Guam, Thailand, then Washington, D.C., Barton was part of a peripatetic Navy family. Her father was a naval aviator, who achieved the rank of captain and commanded a squadron that flew into hurricanes and typhoons to predict their movements. Her mother was a homemaker per se, but much more than that, Barton says.
“She lived in Japan and England, traveled on the Queen Mary, and had some very interesting adventures,” Barton says. “She’s still living, and I’m trying to get her to write her memoirs, as she has many stories about a past and time that doesn’t exist anymore.”
Her father, Charles Barton, became an author after he retired from the Navy and did finish his memoir, titled “Around the World in 80 Years” and self-published in 2014. (One of his memories was seeing Charles Lindbergh land in Boise, Idaho, in the 1920s.)
Always fascinated with aviation history and its pioneers, Charles Barton was especially interested in Howard Hughes and the Spruce Goose, Hughes’ design for a heavy transport “flying boat,” which ended up being constructed of wood. In 1982 Charles Barton published the book “Howard Hughes and his Flying Boat” about Hughes and his inspired but ill-fated endeavor.
Musing on a brush with celebrity, Mary Barton recalls that Leonardo DiCaprio may have studied her father’s book while preparing for his role as Howard Hughes in the 2004 film “The Aviator.”
The movie star touched it, anyway, and the proof can be seen in the lavish “Vanity Fair” photo spread to promote “The Aviator” where in one shot DiCaprio is portrayed holding Charles Barton’s book on Hughes.
Barton says that a career in dance wasn’t on the family’s horizon for her, but as a child she was constantly creating costumes with her mother’s scarves and lingerie, twirling and swooping around the house. “I was always dancing,” she says.
Her mother signed young Mary up for dance studies when the family lived in Thailand. Those lessons didn’t seem to go anywhere, but once they were in the United States, Barton convinced her mother to let her take dance again. “My mom looked in the phone book and found the Washington School of Ballet, the famous school founded by Mary Day,” Barton says.
In her teen years in D.C., Barton also participated in summer courses at the School of American Ballet and Joffrey Ballet School. Her professional experience began when she performed with the Washington Ballet as a soloist in Balanchine’s “Scotch Symphony” and in the principal role in Tom Paczik’s “Tzigane.”
Other early professional credits include the Oldenburg Staat Ballet in Germany and several seasons with Dayton Ballet. In 1986 Barton joined the Joffrey Ballet/NY, where she performed a variety of roles in the great ballets of the 20th century, including the “Nutcracker.”
From 1993 to 2004 Barton was a principal dancer with American Repertory Ballet. She has been on the faculty of the Princeton Ballet School since 1993 and is one of the primary teachers and choreographers for the PBS’ Summer Intensive.
Formerly a ballet faculty member at Princeton University and currently on the faculty of Rider’s music theater department, Barton is pleased that her students might come to see “Woman of Dance.” For one thing, it will give them a chance to better understand all the ballet they are learning for their hoped-for careers in musical theater. “It’s wonderful to be able to bring them into the process, to know me as a teacher, and then to come and see their teacher’s work,” she says. “They’ll also get to meet the dancers.”
Even though her career as a choreographer is long from over, “Woman of Dance” is a kind of retrospective, touching on different periods of Barton’s creativity.
“The way the program flows, it will feature the ladies, then the men, then the whole company together,” Barton says. “I also think it’s interesting that it goes from 2011 to 2017, so it reflects a stretch of time.”
Barton adds that ARB has welcomed a number of new company members this season, and she sees lots of energy as well as talent in the youthful ensemble.
“The dancers are looking fabulous and fierce, but also you look around at rehearsals and see smiling faces,” she says. “You get the sense that they’re doing something challenging and fun, and are really looking forward to the program. It’s a nice mix of music, not repetitive, a lot of fun stuff. I am very excited about it.”
Woman of Dance: Celebrating the Work of Mary Barton, American Repertory Ballet, Bart Luedeke Center, Rider University. Friday and Saturday, September 22 and 23, 7:30 p.m. $20. www.arballet.org or 609-896-7775.