Julian Barnett

The choreographer dips into transcendence.

STATE OF GRACE Julian Barnett stretches out.

STATE OF GRACE Julian Barnett stretches out. Quinn Batson

The path from normal to extraordinary isn't always paved with the best intentions—cheap virtuosity is a common way of taking the easy way out—but in Julian Barnett's newest work, Super Natural, five performers must grasp the idea of ordinary in order to attain transcendence. "I was really interested in how forms of phenomena could be explored through exertion, through physicality, through space, and through emotion and thought process," he says. "How can we create higher states within the construct of a performance? That led me to the idea of transcendence and the thread of phenomenal states being in a natural place."

For the work, which celebrates its premiere at Dance New Amsterdam beginning Thursday 18, Barnett will reconfigure the seating by placing the audience in the space diagonally. One part of that adjustment has to do with theater itself (two columns would otherwise interfere with sight lines); the other has to do with Barnett's composition. "I was interested in showing the intersection of two walls," he says. "The audience experiences the work differently because they're not looking at a flat wall, but at a point that could be infinite. There's a question in that: Why am I looking at a corner? I love that an audience member has to ask that."

With an original score composed and performed live by musician Chris Powers, whom Barnett refers to as a collaborator, Super Natural is sparked by the idea of telepathy and the desire to live a life less ordinary. "I see how humanity has a drive connected to religion, which people use as a means to feel special or to have a deeper purpose in life," he says. "That is connected to the idea of telepathy in terms of a phenomenal way of communicating."

For his research process, which included, in part, the idea of performance as a series of phenomena, Barnett interviewed psychics, explored the idea of physicalizing a musical crescendo and studied the actions of golfer Tiger Woods. "Chris and I were talking about how, as an athlete, you only get that one, singular moment," he says. "How is the execution of a singular moment phenomenal? It led me to believe that you can train yourself to do that—through breathing or repetition, you can arrive at a place where you get into the zone."

In Super Natural, the performers push themselves physically to achieve such states, but his current obsession also includes a more subtle aim: exploring the virtuosity of presence. A mesmerizing dancer, Barnett, half Japanese on his mother's side, began performing at age 12 when he discovered hip-hop in Oakland. "I went to Catholic schools pretty much all of my life, with the exception that year when I went to public school," he says. "It was a huge shift culturally. I saw kids there dancing—it wasn't choreographed, it was definitely improvised—and it was pure expression in the rawest form. I think I was accepted because I wasn't blond-haired and blue-eyed."

Perhaps there's something in Barnett's makeup that allows him to move fluidly among artistic worlds. Currently pursuing his master's in choreography at the ArtEZ Institute of the Arts in Arnhem, Netherlands, Barnett is equally drawn to the experimental realm of Movement Research as he is to more conventional companies like Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, for which he has choreographed. "I'm okay with using my body," he says, laughing. "I'm no longer comfortable using my body in a familiar way, and I don't think that form has to be familiar. How can you articulate something else, other than what we've seen over and over again? How can it be genuine? Authenticity is something that I'm constantly—with enthusiasm—playing with. How can you find the openness within the constraint of material?"

One way, for Barnett, is through improvisation, which plays a key part in Super Natural (structurally, he compares it to a vacant, drafty house). "I hear a lot of bleak stories about being an artist and a choreographer and a dancer—and it's fucking hard—but I'm really excited. I know that sounds simple, but I'm excited by the potential. My ideas about performance, of material, of content have really expanded: It's like opening up a new toolbox."

Julian Barnett is at Dance New Amsterdam Thu 18--Sun 21.

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