Boston Conservatory’s New Multi-Year Partnership With Aszure Barton Sparks Fresh Opportunities for Students
Sponsored by Boston Conservatory at Berklee
June 5, 2024

Drew Allen confesses that she was incredibly intimidated the first time she worked with choreographer Aszure Barton. As a junior at Boston Conservatory at Berklee’s Dance Division in 2023, Allen was cast in Ellipsis, a new work that Barton had choreographed on the contemporary BFA students. “It was very nerve-racking because I was a really big fan of hers,” Allen says. She was so focused on doing the choreography “right” that she struggled to get out of her head and trust her instincts as a dancer.

Luckily for her, Barton returned during Allen’s senior year as part of a new four-year partnership in which the choreographer will have a two-week artistic residency at Boston Conservatory each spring, either crafting a new work or setting an older one. This spring, Barton reconstructed LIFT, originally made for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 2013; Allen was cast once again.

Boston Conservatory at Berklee dancers in Aszure Barton's "LIFT." Jim Coleman, courtesy Boston Conservatory at Berklee.

“I am so grateful that I was able to experience it twice because I feel like I got so much from the first and then learned a lot more from the second experience,” she says. Better prepared (and now a little less starstruck), Allen says she felt like she could take in more of the information Barton was teaching the students. “She gives a lot of freedom with feeling out the movement on your own and how it feels for you,” Allen says. Learning that the choices she made weren’t “right or wrong” but all part of the process have made the new graduate feel far more prepared as she heads out on the professional audition circuit.  

Boston Conservatory at Berklee dean of dance Tommy Neblett says this is exactly what he’s hoping students get out of the contemporary dance program’s new creative partnership with Barton. “We’re training them to be A-list performers,” he says. “This residency simulates the real world, but in a lower-pressure setting.” 

Aszure Barton. Graeme Mitchell, courtesy Barton.

Barton is one of 30 to 40 guest artists Neblett brings to the Dance Division each year to give the students a chance to network and experience what it’s like to work with professionals. (The strategy has paid off, with graduates now filling the ranks of companies like Nederlands Dans Theatre, Complexions Contemporary Ballet, and BODYTRAFFIC.) But this is the first time the department has ever established a multi-year partnership of this magnitude. 

“When Tommy proposed the idea of this partnership, my answer was an easy yes,” Barton says. “When you feel there is support and respect, and that people believe in the work you’re making, it makes it a pretty simple choice!” 

Barton first worked with Boston Conservatory dancers in 2017, and Neblett had been eager to bring her back ever since. Although she doesn’t work with many college dance programs, Barton says she finds the supportive atmosphere at Boston Conservatory particularly inspiring. “Their commitment to the community runs deep and is palpable,” she says. “I learn so much being in such a nurturing environment.”

Boston Conservatory at Berklee dancers in Aszure Barton's "Ellipsis." Jim Coleman, courtesy Boston Conservatory at Berklee.

She finds the caring tone set by the faculty is reflected in how the students approach the rehearsal process. “Not only are they willing to show up, but they also seem to know how,” Barton says. “They’re ready to take on challenges as a group, which is really impressive; there’s a great sense of camaraderie and they believe in each other—it’s a wonderful environment to enter as a guest. I just love the support system they create within the school as a whole.”

The benefit of the partnership is about more than just getting a big name into the studio. Learning Barton’s work firsthand is a priceless opportunity for today’s aspiring contemporary dancers. For instance, Allen says she found that tackling the intricacy of Barton’s choreography helped her find more clarity in her movements. “Her work is nuanced and detail-oriented as well as being organic, surprising and unique,” adds Neblett. “That caliber of work is invaluable for our students to experience.”

A Boston Conservatory at Berklee dancer in Aszure Barton's "LIFT." Jim Coleman, Courtesy Boston Conservatory at Berklee.

The partnership is scheduled to last through the 2026–27 school year, though Neblett and Barton say they’re taking each residency one year at a time. “What I know is that I hope to facilitate a space for us to be creative and present together in process, whether it’s a new creation or learning an existing work,” Barton says. 

For their part, the students are doing everything they can to soak up what Barton has to offer—particularly those like Allen, who got the rare opportunity to dance for her for two years in a row. “For Aszure to say ‘I want to work with these dancers’ is a testament to the program,” says Neblett. “I am honored and humbled that she has put her trust in us and our students.”

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