The Movement Poet
Barton Cowperthwaite and the Art that Drives Him
By Preeti Zachariah
A black-and-white photograph of New York stretches across Barton Cowperthwaite’s website, the spire of the Empire State Building skewering the sky. A video pops up: Cowperthwaite, dressed in pristine white, offers a wistful smile — all chiseled jaw, luminous green eyes and long, lean muscularity. He then takes to the streets, twirling across mottled concrete and russet tiles. Like the little girl of the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, he cannot seem to stop dancing (though his shoes are brown, not red).
“He’s always dancing around our apartment — joke dancing mostly,” says fellow performer Kenny Corrigan, who is Cowperthwaite’s roommate in Washington Heights, along with his cat, Boon. But Cowperthwaite is serious about his career. Corrigan says he is super competitive and extremely industrious: “I’ve never seen the guy not work.”
Cowperthwaite talks about dance the way some people talk about a great love or spiritual awakening — with the lowered voice and meditative air of a sage tiptoeing along the path to Nirvana. He thinks of his art as a spiritual pursuit, a lifelong calling.
Cowperthwaite is one of the thousands of performing artists who arrive in New York each year hoping to make a life — and even a living — in their field. After four years in the city, at age 26, his prospects as a dancer are as good as anyone's. The esteemed choreographer Lar Lubovitch, in whose company’s 50th anniversary celebration Cowperthwaite performed, describes him as a “movement poet”: a dancer for whom “there is a point to be made about humanity through dance.” Lubovitch also credits Cowperthwaite with having what he calls musical visualization, or a natural physical response to music. “Rather than hearing the music, this kind of dancer has the impression of being the music,” he says.
Cowperthwaite has had a good run, so far. He performed for six months in the touring production of An American in Paris (2017); acted in a television film, Centre Stage: On Pointe (2016); and danced in Jack Ferver’s I Want You to Want Me (2016). This year, too, his schedule has been packed with projects. But in the volatile world of freelance artists, where the competition grows by the day, he is trying to expand his employability by adding new skills: acting and singing. Being a good dancer is not enough. “I want dance to be the vehicle that brings me into film and television. I want dance to be a medium that carries me into being a leading man on Broadway. I want to use the art form to share my world views and to help people,” he says.
A schoolboy crush led Cowperthwaite to his first dance class in Denver, Colorado, his hometown. His little brother, Joey, was taking a hip-hop class because a girl he liked was learning it, too. Their mother, Laura Cowperthwaite, remembers Barton coming along with her to drop off and pick up Joey. “He would often watch class,” she says. Referring to Mike Costa, a character from the Broadway musical A Chorus Line whose first experience of dance was watching his sister’s class, she quotes lyrics from his song: “‘I’m watchin’ Sis go pitter-pat. Said, I can do that.’ — It was kind of like that.”
Cowperthwaite was in sixth grade then, relatively late to begin studying dance, though he had always been an athletic kid who played a lot of sports. But he turned out to be remarkably good at it. “Within weeks, Bart was better than Joey,” remembers his father, Arthur Cowperthwaite. And though Joey did continue taking classes for a bit longer, “the only person who did the practice necessary to get great at it was Bart.”
He also had the right physical proportions for the craft — what Adrian Guo-Silver, a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University, whose research focuses on dance and theater, calls “a gorgeous ballet body” — long limbs, a short torso, and supple feet with high insteps. Those “crazy, pointed feet,” as his friend (and dancer) Taner Van Kuren puts it, come from his mother. Laura Cowperthwaite was a dancer herself, and a good one by her ex-husband, Arthur’s account. Then, one day, she fell down a flight of stairs. “That kind of destroyed my ability to be a professional dancer. But I always wondered if I had quit too early,” she says. When she attended one of Cowpertwaite’s dance recitals, the conflict that had plagued her for years disappeared. He was only in eighth grade, she remembers, but his talent was obvious. Yes, it was too late for her to be a dancer but, “I could be the mother of a dancer,” she says, “could have an understanding of what he goes through to do what he does.”
Cowperthwaite props a foot on the towel-festooned barre at the Manhattan dance studio, Steps on Broadway, one Saturday in October, and leans over it to stretch his hamstring before a ballet class begins. Around him, women dressed in tights or tutus replace their boots and sneakers with pointe slippers and slide on their leg-warmers. The class begins with a number of warm-up exercises performed on the barre. Kurt Froman, the instructor, leads the group through toe taps, shallow squats, lunges, spine activation, plies, leg lifts with pulses — small, barely discernible actions that leave the fifteen-odd women slick with sweat. Also Cowperthwaite, the only man taking the class.
The world of ballet operates within rigid gender codes, argues Jennifer Fisher in her article for Dance Chronicle, “Make it Maverick: Rethinking the ‘Make it Macho‘ Strategy for Men in Ballet,” noting that men who study ballet are often stigmatized because of the art form’s strong association with a feminized world. “You are constantly put up against masculine stereotypes that our society has implemented on young boys,” Cowperthwaite says — to be strong, to play a sport. “Ballet goes against everything society says you must be.”
The personal narratives of many celebrated male dancers contain stories of discrimination, bullying and name-calling. Edward Villella was teased mercilessly when his friends spotted an array of tights on his clothesline; in his autobiography, I Was a Dancer, Jacques d’Amboise writes about being called a sissy; Rudolf Nureyev was beaten by his father regularly because he elected to study ballet.
Although those very men helped improve things, Cowperthwaite felt those same pressures when he began ballet as an adolescent because, he says, “people told me it would make my hip hop better.” He had already made inroads into jazz and tap by then, but had been putting off ballet lessons because he didn’t want to wear tights, recalls his mother. His teacher told him that he could wear anything he wanted as long as his knees stayed visible. So he took ballet lessons in basketball shorts. That didn’t stop the bullying.
Samuel Kleiner, one of Cowperthwaite’s oldest and closest friends, remembers that he dealt with “these close-minded losers with confidence, grace, and a no-fucks attitude, because at the end of the day, he knew that he was chasing his dream and that it was going to take him places.”
The harassment finally came to an end around the time Cowperthwaite went to high school at the Denver School of the Arts. “Who are you going to get bullied by as a dancer? The theater kids? No one is making fun of you of being an artist,” he says with a grin. He also began participating in — and winning — dance competitions in Denver. The success made him realize that he had a future in dance, he says. Additionally, his mentor in his early dance classes, Brian Young, had moved to the Academy of Colorado Ballet. Cowperthwaite followed him there. “That is when my training became really professional,” he says. He went on to a BFA program in Dance at the University of Arizona. Young, in the tradition of the great jazz teacher and choreographer, Gus Giordano, had given Cowperthwaite solid jazz training and, “I went to college thinking that I was going to be a classical jazz dancer, move to Chicago and join a company like Giordano.”
In Arizona, he was placed in a medium level jazz class and in the highest level of ballet since he was a rare beast — a man who showed potential for growth within that genre. There, Cowperthwaite was introduced to George Balanchine’s method, “a very jazzy field within a ballet vocabulary,” which was fast-paced, free-spirited, and musically driven — a revelation to him after having been trained in the Vaganova method that stresses long poses and conscious awareness of every movement. The new style, which deemphasizes plot and pushes the dancer’s personality to the forefront, “kind of swept me off my feet and helped me formulate my ballet technique much more,” Cowperthwaite says, adding that it helped him build, “a really strong ballet foundation with a ton of different branch-outs.”
As he waits under the lights on the stage at Manhattan’s Francis Gould Hall in November Barton Cowperthwaite looks like a bronze-filmed sculpture — still, silent, mysterious. When the music begins, metal becomes movement as he launches into plies, arabesques and leaps — the opening act of the premiere of Tom Gold’s “Apparatus Hominus.” “He’s good,” pronounces a silver-haired gentleman sitting beside me.
Gold thinks so, too. Not only is Cowperthwaite naturally gifted with beautiful proportions (so necessary to get a “good line”), Gold contends, but he is also an extraordinary mover with a great sense of musicality. His training in different styles of ballet (Vaganova, Cicchetti, and Balanchine) along with jazz, tap, hip-hop and modern helps too, says Gold. “You combine his beautiful ballet training and technique with this beautiful freedom of movement. It really makes a complete performer.”
This diverse dance background also has helped Cowperthwaite survive in New York since he first moved to the City in 2014 — he can audition across genres. He has found work in theater, film, and more. Modeling has proved to be particularly lucrative, bringing home the income Cowperthwaite needs to support his art. “As a dancer, I am so used to working my fingers to the bone for little to no compensation,” he says. “It does feel nice to sometimes go and do a day or two of work where you are taken care of and get paid a ridiculously high rate for just standing around and looking pretty.”
Still, Cowperthwaite typically has an easier time than his female colleagues. Classical ballet, especially, needs men to dance the roles of prince, lover, pirate or count. Certain moves in the ballet vocabulary, like lifts, are traditionally reserved for men. “We get promoted more easily, hired more easily, let off more easily. Women are more replaceable in this art form,” says Cowperthwaite.
On the other hand, ballet opportunities typically come from ballet companies, which hire dancers into a corps — coveted positions that offer dancers a number of productions over a season and a real salary that even includes a retirement plan. But there are so few ballet companies and they are so hard to get into that dancers often look for work in the commercial theater. “I know many dance graduates who go into Broadway for the money,” says Guo-Silver.
That has become one of Cowperthwaite’s tactics over the last few years. It’s no sacrifice — he has always loved Broadway. Fittingly, Billy Elliot was the first show he saw on the Great White Way, a school graduation gift from his aunt. He has just finished a workshop for Alice by Heart, the new musical by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater (creators of Spring Awakening) and is waiting to hear whether he will be invited to continue with the project as it evolves. He is also taking voice lessons. “I can’t say his singing is spectacular but it probably doesn’t have to be for the kinds of shows that would want him,” says Guo-Silver. As for Cowperthwaite’s acting, “If he does a few shows that put him in standard six-week rehearsal periods and five-week runs, he’ll get the experience to develop.”
By all accounts, Cowperthwaite has the skill, body type, and work ethic to make it, even in an unforgivingly competitive environment. Guo-Silver considers him a star as a dancer who can hold his own on stage. Still, there are no guarantees. According to Derek Miller, a theater scholar at Harvard whose research focuses on Broadway, one also needs some magic. “It’s always luck,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that there isn’t preparation and skill. But there also has to be luck.”
It was luck that helped bring Cowperthwaite to a moment that he still thinks of as a defining one in his career. It was April of 2017, he remembers. He had a featured role in the ensemble of An American in Paris and was the third swing/ second understudy for the lead role of Jerry Mulligan, a World War II vet trying to make it as a painter in post-war Paris. It had been a difficult year. Cowperthwaite had lost a close friend, Nick, as well as an uncle a couple of months earlier, and was struggling to maintain a long-distance relationship with his then-girlfriend. He had spent the previous three months asking if he could have a shot at performing as Mulligan. It hadn’t happened and he was beginning to lose all hope that it ever would. His contract was soon ending and the company had already hired a new actor to replace him, so Cowperthwaite had stopped rehearsing the part. Then, 15 minutes before curtain one night, both the lead and the first understudy were unable to perform — “freak circumstances,” Cowperthwaite says. He was thrown on stage as the hero.
“It was April Fool’s Day — the cast thought it was a joke,” he recalls with a laugh. He had never rehearsed the part with the woman who played the female lead, but he pulled it off, he says, calling the experience surreal and validating. “I knew that the people who I wanted to perform for — like Nick who had just passed and my uncle — they were in the audience with me,” he says . “I knew that I was doing that show for the right reasons at the right time.”