During a recent rehearsal here before the White Oak Dance Project's opening tonight at the Warner Theatre, the celebrated dancer is in constant motion. He rolls halfway into a backward somersault, rump in the air, toes resting on the floor. Or, legs outstretched in front of him, he folds himself in two, nose pressed to ankles. Most of all, he massages his right knee, a frequent surgery site over his long career as the supreme star of classical ballet.
Baryshnikov, who turned 50 in January, still reigns as the greatest dancer alive, though he no longer wears a ballet hero's tights and slippers. As a teenager, he shot to fame as an unparalleled technician with soulful dramatic gifts in the precise, unforgiving field of ballet and went on to direct the colossal American Ballet Theatre for nearly 10 years. But now he solely performs modern dance works, still with that arresting ability to imbue each movement with urgent life.
His artistry remains unmatched, but he is now wrestling with the dilemmas that every dancer must eventually face. How do you stay at the top of the profession you love facing almost inhuman physical demands as the years progress? Although age and injuries have reduced his physical range most dancers would have retired a decade or so ago he is no less a perfectionist as he rehearses the idiosyncratic works that will figure in the four nights of performances in Washington.
"If I didn't want it badly, I would never do it," Baryshnikov says, considering this second stage of his dance career as he sips coffee on a bright morning in his hotel suite. Dressed in a black T-shirt, faded jeans and sneakers, he still has the matinee idol looks that made him ballet's biggest crossover star. Most striking are his pale eyes, by turns penetrating, distantly musing and bright with mischief. With his trim, slight build, tawny hair cropped boyishly close and angular face creased only when he laughs, he looks lightly touched by age.
And so it is jarring to hear him matter-of-factly discussing the gradual crumbling of his abilities, as well as the physical and emotional price he paid for a series of recent solo dates and White Oak's current seven-week tour. True to the troupe's eclectic nature, the program features new works by young choreographers Kraig Patterson and Neil Greenberg (the latter for the full company, including Baryshnikov), as well as a company premiere of "Profiles" by veteran dance-maker Paul Taylor, and a collaborative, experimental solo for Baryshnikov, "HeartBeat:mb."
"If you go through this pain to keep in shape, and work on your injuries and be away from your family, it's an extraordinary sacrifice of the pleasures and necessities of life," Baryshnikov says. "And if you think it's really that important for you and for the audience, you better go onstage and do it right."
These are high stakes: Only with a peerless performance can he justify being away from his family and his Hudson Valley home. (Baryshnikov has four children, a 17-year-old daughter by actress Jessica Lange and three little ones with his companion of nearly a decade, former ABT dancer Lisa Rinehart.) This explains the constant care of his knee, the exhaustive physical therapy regimen that includes two hours first thing in the morning, two hours after rehearsals and an extensive warm-up leading right to curtain time.
When his costume will conceal it, Baryshnikov performs with a knee brace. As further protection, he and his company dance exclusively on a custom-built portable sprung-wood floor that packs up into two-inch-thick segments and can be laid over any stage.
But there is another explanation for Baryshnikov's perseverance, one that has to do with a protracted quest for freedom. In 1974, he defected from his native Russia in pursuit of artistic liberty, darting into a waiting car after a performance in Toronto. As a star with ABT, he delved into contemporary dance when he could, with the same fervor he applied to the impossibly high, suspended leaps and unshakable turns in "Giselle" and "Don Quixote."
Sixteen years later came another defection: He turned his back on the strictly codified discipline of ballet, founding White Oak as a purely modern dance endeavor.
Yet there is still one prison that traps him. Breaking free of the body's limitations is not so easily done. But one can try. If you're Baryshnikov the name has become synonymous with greatness in dance you find a way.
Reaching 50 is a milestone in anyone's life. For a dancer, an athlete, even a weekend jock, the body's slow deterioration becomes an ever more pressing concern. Speaking thoughtfully in a Russian accent that has softened over the years, Baryshnikov acknowledges struggling with the realization that even in the space of a few seasons, he has had to whittle his repertoire.
"I don't touch certain pieces already that I did a few years ago, because my knee and my body and my mind say, 'I don't think you can dance those pieces as well as you did,' " he explains, naming leading choreographer Twyla Tharp's witty, tour de force solo "Pergolesi" as one of the works now shelved. "You just have to be big boy and say, 'That's it, that's the verdict.' But in the pieces which you can do hundred percent, all your energy and work narrows down and lasers itself into a total commitment and precision, and produces impressive from my point of view execution, or justice to the choreography."
One of those pieces is "HeartBeat:mb," which has become the sensation of this tour. He is scheduled to perform it on each of the Warner Theatre programs.
The piece is a collaboration among sound designer Christopher Janney and choreographer Sara Rudner, with Baryshnikov adding his own improvisation. He wears wireless electrodes taped to his chest, transmitting the rhythm of his heart to onstage speakers; Baryshnikov accompanies the beat with bursts of movement. The piece evokes the heart's function as a mechanical pump and also as the source of emotion and spirituality.
Has its popularity surprised him? "I didn't know that people would take it so personally." It is, however, deeply personal for Baryshnikov, who in recent years has lost several close friends to heart disease among them the writer Joseph Brodsky and paper company owner Howard Gilman; Baryshnikov named his company after Gilman's Florida plantation. "I have been in hospital after open heart surgeries, and I know people who have lived with heart conditions for many years. And you can't avoid that mortality aspect of it let's face it, we are all afraid of death."
It isn't lost on the dancer that many men his age may also be wearing electrodes hooked up to a nurses' station, not a stage. But it is his overstressed knee, not his internal pump, that Baryshnikov must watch out for. "There's a Miles Davis quote which says, 'Play what's not there.' That's the essence of this," he says. Like a jazz musician, he is improvising and isn't always sure where he will end up. "I really don't know where I'm going. You don't know exactly how you'll land, how you'll twist. You put your body on autopilot to protect the injured spot. At the same time, other part of your brain says, 'Forget about it, go for it, break your neck but make it work. Make it dance.' "
This sense of abandon, of tireless enthusiasm for whatever performance is coming up, has proved an inspiration to the members of White Oak, several of whom are in their thirties and near the close of their careers. "Every time I think, 'How could I still possibly be doing this?' I realize Misha just turned 50, and he just finished a solo tour where he danced all night," says the company's Vernon Scott, 37.
With its emphasis on seasoned performers over youth, and challenging repertory over crowd-pleasing fare, White Oak is essentially the opposite of the big ballet companies, such as ABT, with which Baryshnikov was associated in his ballet career. It's an upscale pick-up company; dancers are hired for a particular tour, with no contracts. As Baryshnikov describes it, the troupe is a commercial enterprise, not a nonprofit like most arts organizations. There is no board of directors, no mission statement, no need to raise funds. Either it pays for itself with box-office receipts a customary occurrence, driven by the strength of its founder's name or Baryshnikov covers the costs with proceeds from his fragrance and clothing enterprises.
"That's the only negative thing about it I do not make serious money with it," he says. "It is my hobby, if you want. Without my other business activities perfume company or body-wear thing I wouldn't be able to do what I'm doing now."
And despite the pain, despite the encroaching stiffness, he plans to continue doing it in the right framework. "The future depends on new material, very much so, otherwise I wouldn't continue. If there would be work that I can do full out, with no hesitation, hundred percent in my body and in my mind, I'll keep dancing. Because I know I can come up with impressive performance, that wouldn't be boring to watch. But this would be on the shoulders of the choreographer, of course, who could understand this dilemma this challenge with my limitations: age, body, injury. But at same time there might be more theatrical elements, with minimal amount of movement."
He pauses, eyes distant; you wonder if he's having a flash of regret. But he suddenly breaks into a grin. "Okay, wheelchair! Good idea. I'd like to do one piece just sitting in a chair, just moving arms. Right in front of audience."
It is conceivable that people would fill a theater to see him do this. It is also conceivable that he would make it worth their while.
Baryshnikov has blazed a winding road through the dance field aside from ABT, he's performed with the New York City Ballet and other leading ballet companies, as well as for contemporary choreographers such as Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Eliot Feld, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, Alvin Ailey, Mark Morris and Trisha Brown. From these luminaries, he says, he continues to learn about the power and potential of dancing.
"Dance is not the peak of physical form jump, turn, balance and all those elements. Dance is something else," he says. Working with the veteran choreographers "gave me true inside knowledge about what dance, and the ethics of dance, is about. Make a decision about what is really important for you in a dance, and be serious about it. Select work, and work wisely on your body and your mind. Respect yourself and audience at same time. Sustain integrity of a performance and be entertainer at same time.
"Be yourself and dance with your mind and your body, the way it is right now," he says. "Don't try to fight the image of yourself from 20 years ago."
Apart from his famous defection, Baryshnikov has a string of bold moves behind him. He gave up stewardship of ABT, the country's premier classical dance institution, when the board fired his good friend and associate, Charles France. He founded a new company dedicated to risky choreography in an economic recession. This past fall, he went on tour with an evening of solos at an age when many dancers turn to teaching, or simply quit. But he rejects the notion that courage has had anything to do with his career.
"This is a totally selfish trip courage has nothing to do with it. This is not courage, what I am doing. It is excruciating pleasure," he says with a self-mocking laugh.
Sitting with his legs crossed, he absent-mindedly jiggles his bad knee. "And pain at the same time."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
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