IT’S SUMMERDANCE, AND THE LIVING IS EASY

We may not live in Disneyland, but for choreographer-dancer Aszure Barton, Santa Barbara is just about the happiest place on Earth.

“Oh, man, I love it here,” she says, perched on a short wall in the Lobero Theatre courtyard. “The weather is amazing, the environment is great, the people are cool, everyone so generous and open – I just feel so happy here.”

Given Barton’s Santa Barbara experiences, who wouldn’t?

Her first exposure to our little slice of South Coast heaven came last year in a three-week residency courtesy of SUMMERDANCE Santa Barbara, an eternity in the world of modern dance where time and space are scarce commodities.

“In New York, everyone is scattered working a million jobs and there’s no chance to have all my dancers together with a single focus,” Barton says. “And I’ve had to create work one right after the other. So to have all that time and a place to make whatever we wanted was just amazingly luxurious.”

Two of those pieces she’s put together over the last year, of course, were just produced in her second Santa Barbara visit last month at the Lobero by none other than famed Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and Hell’s Kitchen Dance, where Barton was one of the first artists-in-residence. Once again, the town opened its arms to her, offering rehearsal space and the most intimate venue to perform her highly acclaimed pieces.

And now Barton is back for the main thrust of SUMMERDANCE 2006, with new works – although curiously not the one she began developing here last year – including “Lascilo Perdere (“Leave it Alone”), subtitled “a journey of letting go.” Azsure & Artists will also reprise “Over/Come” from the Lobero shows, plus “Exit,” the first movement of a piece called “Short Lived,” at the SUMMERDANCE performances July 26-27 at Center Stage Theater.

“Lascilo” is a stunning work that examines how we deal with loss through often confrontational interactions between the dancers, a theme that threads through much of Barton’s creations.

The piece has unusual and erotic movements that have drawn ravishing reviews, but the critics all exhibit – confidently, of course – widely varying interpretations of the work. In “Come In,” the piece she choreographed for Baryshnikov, for example, most viewers saw his repeated motion of grabbing his throat as hugely symbolic, but Barton eschews such interpretations.

“I haven’t told anyone this, but that movement came from just watching him in his quiet moments between dances,” she says. “But I want to leave room for people to use their imaginations and not tell them what to think. If one sees it as dark and heavy and another as moving and uplifting, it’s all where you come from and how you choose to see things.”

But do critics have a good handle on her work?

“I don’t know,” she says with a giggle. “I don’t even understand what I’m doing. Some of them seem to think they know what it is, and maybe they do. I change everything all of the time. It just sort of happens in my gut and I go with it. Things somehow resolve and come together, even if I don’t understand the magic of that, the process itself. I just trust that it will come out.”

Barton’s busy schedule has her booked choreographing at such places as Montreal, Toronto, the Julliard in New York and England at the beginning of the new year. After that, she says, she wants to create another piece for Aszure & Artists. And if SUMMERDANCE wants her back next year?

“Oh, God, I’d be here in a minute,” she says. “I would like to be bicoastal and spend some part of every year here in Santa Barbara.”

Cruz Control

If luck equals preparation meeting opportunity, it also helps if you have an epiphany that educes commitment. Case in point: playwright Nilo Cruz, author of “Anna in the Tropics,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning play making its Central Coast debut at PCPA Theatrefest in Solvang from July 19-August 6.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Cruz was working as an aide in a Miami hospital – albeit one who read a lot of books and wrote notes on bandage wrappers during breaks – when he had a sudden notion that he had to attend the theatre that very night. He saw “The Dresser” at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, and it changed his life.

“When I left the theater that night, I couldn’t sleep,” he told the audience during a recent visit to the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. “I have to educate myself, take theater classes.”

He signed up at the local community college, where he wrote his own scenes for acting class, which is where his teacher told him to give up thoughts of acting and focus on writing. Before long, he was off to New York for a fellowship, where he wrote several other works before hitting on the idea of setting “Anna” in a 1920s Cuban-American cigar factory where a lector reads Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” to the workers, stirring dreams and passions among the crew; Cruz uses the situation to explore the ways life and art mirror one another. In 2003, the play earned Cruz the first ever Pulitzer awarded to a Latino playwright, and only the second in Pulitzer history to be bestowed upon a production that hadn’t yet played in New York.

We grabbed a few minutes with Cruz after he finished a long book-signing session where – more than admirably, considering the late hour and the fact that he hadn’t eaten – he gave each person several minutes of private interchange, as well as quite a few hugs.

Q. Why plays rather than novels or screenplays?

A. There’s playfulness, a world of pretend that theater has that I completely adore. They’re actors playing someone, and you have to let your imagination go, suspend your disbelief and believe that you are in this room with a group of people. Theater is basically a black box, and you have to go with that world that is being created in front of you. The audience gets to play a role too because of that.

The roots of theater are all about ceremony more than anything. There are moments you get on stage that celluloid just can’t capture, an immediacy that film doesn’t have. It’s a more innocent art form.

Do you learn something from seeing your plays produced?

Yeah, always. I’m open to the collaboration. I think that’s why I’m in the theatre. It’s about playing with other people. I’ve observed auditions and I’ll see actors do a scene really differently than the way I intended it, and I’ve stolen that from them. I’ll realize, “This is the way to go.”

How did winning the Pulitzer change your life and career?

For one thing my work all of a sudden is being produced all over the world, places I never thought it would have, like Belarus, Croatia, France. It’s been translated into many languages. When I left my home in Florida, I never thought that this would happen to me….And it feels strange. I try not to let it get to my head. I have to go back to being the same writer that I was before and have the same artistic process. And it’s tough, because it makes you a celebrity and it’s harder to get back to that place where you are working in anonymity.