Nadine Barton doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t dancing; she also doesn’t remember when she began envisioning dance steps to music. Now, as an Alabama Ballet company dancer, choreographer, and teacher, she continues to refine her craft for a living.
The California-born and Miami, FL-bred Nadine is a self-described hotel brat (her dad worked for Marriott) who moved a lot as a kid. Yet, from competing in Youth American Grand Prix in New York City as a teen, to apprenticing with the Sarasota and Oklahoma City Ballets, to landing her first company contract with the Alabama Ballet five years ago, dance has always been a constant.
In 2018, Nadine was one of 60 dancers chosen to take part in Nederlands Dans Theater’s Summer Intensive in The Netherlands, as well as Axis Connect in New York City — two prestigious and highly selective programs. And she is premiering her own choreographic work in Alabama Ballet’s Ovation April 26-28. Her work, like Nadine herself, is simply stunning.
We are delighted to introduce today’s FACE of Birmingham, Nadine Barton.
Tell us a bit about your journey from student to professional.
We moved to Miami, where I went to this school with amazing teachers to whom I owe my whole technical and artistic career. When I met my teacher Lissette Salgado Lucas, I was like, “I want to be her.” That not only transformed me as a dancer, but I then realized what it is to be a teacher. The way she taught me was what I want to do for other young girls. She was the one who told me I should audition for companies. But when I left to go to Sarasota when I was 18, that was the real student-to-professional journey because I left home and didn’t go to college. I went straight into company, and that was huge. I had a scholarship, but I just wanted to dance and my parents supported me.
Describe your typical day.
I wake up. I make eggs because they give me protein; I put cheese in there because I love cheese. I have to warm up my ankle, and then we have class at 10 a.m. for about an hour. The day is always filled with different rehearsals. After that, I teach from about 5:15 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Then I go home, and I take a bath and ice my feet.
How did the love of choreography come into the picture?
I don’t know when it started, but every time I listen to music — even when I was younger — I always see dancers. It was always a mental or visual process, and it just blossoms from there.
How did the Nederlands Dans Theater’s Summer Intensive and Axis Connect in New York City inform your choreography and help you grow?
The studios were stunning and huge, and you just know that all of those creators — from dancers, to movers, to choreographers — have been in there producing amazing work. You can’t help but get inspired. The days were really hard; the studios were really hot. I lost a lot of weight, which was awesome! [Laughs.] I was challenged so much, and I was moving in ways I had never moved before. My body was so sore. I was being taught by company dancers I watch on YouTube, and I was like, “Oh, my gosh!”
We also did a lot of choreographing on our own. They’d make us show our pieces one at a time, which was so nerve-wracking because everybody in the room is thinking, “Man, I’m surrounded by all these talented dancers.” So even if I was to doubt myself, somebody was in awe of me, and vice versa.
It inspired me as a choreographer, too. I was learning rep by Crystal Pite, one of my choreographic idols. Her mind is awesome. And I was being taught by the dancers who she set her work on, so you felt almost like Crystal was in the room. But I also really enjoyed watching the teachers work with the dancers — imagining myself in that teacher’s shoes, being in charge of the room, helping people morph their bodies in ways they never thought they could.
Then I went straight to New York to Axis Connect, where the style was faster, more commercial. Those programs were so night-and-day that it clarified for me that performance art, dance theater, is for me. I needed those two experiences to show me what I really wanted.
So tell us about your upcoming pieces in Alabama Ballet’s Ovation.
“Woman” is the third movement from my piece Watts. It holds a special importance to me because the lead is standing tall with this enormous skirt on with other women hidden underneath. As she stands, everyone sees her as this grand, beautiful, tall woman. But I have told the character that while she’s everything that you want a woman to be, she’s everything you don’t want in a woman as well. Underneath her shiny qualities she has loss. She has much pain, and wrinkles, and anger. She’s no greater than any of the women underneath her.
The platforms that we use throughout the piece have a symbolism of pedestals. Sometimes we put people on pedestals who don’t necessarily deserve to be put up. I think that this is something very common in our society today, so I wanted to play with that idea within my movement.
What is most challenging about being a dancer and a choreographer?
The most challenging thing is changing my mindset. When you are a dancer, you are the clay to be molded. And when you are the choreographer, you are the sculptor. Here, it’s hard, because all of the dancers are my friends and coworkers. I know them really well, so it’s a challenge because you can’t be too personal — you have to be persistent, focused, and strong.
The most rewarding part is also the scariest part: It’s sitting down in the audience and feeling all of the audience’s energy, the anticipation — but also watching your dancers grow, putting that trust in them, and hoping that they do you right. And then, when you are in the audience, feeling the reaction of the audience. The best is when they move their heads because they want to see what’s on stage, and you’re like, “I made that! That thing that you want to look at, I did that!”
Why do you love to dance?
I hate this question because it always makes me cry. [Laughs and pauses] I love to dance because I really, truly believe that it’s what I was made to do. There are so many choices that you have to make in life, and I don’t have to make this choice because I just know that it’s what I’m supposed to do.
What is your favorite thing about Birmingham?
I love the people. People are very friendly in Birmingham.
Do you have a mentor or role model, and if so, what has he or she taught you?
My role models are my teachers Lissette Salgado Lucas and Elizabeth Acuna Nuevo because they gave me my dance technique and artistry. They taught me how to dance and why. I don’t know how you can teach someone why they dance, but just by watching them, I gathered that.
What is something that some people might be surprised to learn about you?
I come from a very multicultural family. My mom is from Portugal; my dad is a Chilean-American; and they met in Switzerland. My parents gave both my sister, Sabina, and me names that could be pronounced properly in all languages, so nobody [in the extended family] felt like there was a struggle to say a name.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
Getting into the Nederlands Dans Theatre — that and buying my cats, Quinn and Ira, for 20 bucks.
What are your must-have style staples?
Something comfy and something funky.
What is your best piece of advice?
My mom always says, “Smile, nod, and listen.” And she has that Portuguese accent, which is a really nice touch. And I think that I smiled, nodded, and listened for so long that I developed this sense of confidence — in my voice, too, when I had to speak up. I think speaking up is also really important, but you have to listen before you speak up.
Besides faith, family and friends, name three things you can’t live without.
Music, authenticity, and trust.
Thank you, Nadine! Get your tickets to Alabama Ballet’s Ovation, taking place next Friday, April 26 through Sunday, April 28.
Get inspired by more amazing FACES of the South here!