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Baryshnikov's Historic Leaps

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 23, 1998

  Style Showcase

Baryshnikov's interpretation of
Limon's "Chaconne."
Gary Friedman)
Long after he made his mark as the most famous dancer in the world, long after injuries began eating away at his technical range, long past the age when most dancers retire and turn to teaching or directing, Mikhail Baryshnikov is still raising the bar.

A program of solos such as he performed Wednesday night at the City Center would be difficult for anyone to pull off – and indeed, who would dare? There are few dancers with the box office power to launch a solo program, but also few who would be interesting enough to sustain one. With "An Evening of Music and Dance," which continues through Sunday and then tours California, Baryshnikov proved he is as transporting and fluid as ever, and there's not a dancer alive who can match him.

Baryshnikov, who turns 50 next week, remains as fresh a dancer as ever – albeit in carefully chosen works. What's even more extraordinary is that he has chosen to dance alone in all four pieces, an act of risk-taking and faith that almost no one in the dance world bothers with anymore. In the dawn of modern dance, pioneers such as Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn performed on their own to introduce their movement ideas to the public.

Solo programs are virtually unheard of in classical ballet, where Baryshnikov dominated as a phenomenal, effortless artist, first with the Kirov Ballet in his native Russia, then with American Ballet Theatre and, briefly, the New York City Ballet. But as he's delved into modern dance, leaving his position at the helm of ABT to found the White Oak Dance Project in 1990, he's determinedly probing all facets of the genre. He has been finding new choreographers, commissioning established ones, experimenting with sound and silence, and now shouldering his own program.

But unlike those of the modern dance forebears, this program wasn't about new ways of moving, or new choreographic ideas; it was simply about Baryshnikov in motion – an entirely different statement, but, given the artist, hardly a lesser one. This wasn't an exploration of geometry or ritual or pattern; it was about speed and stillness and stage-skimming flight, turning muscle and bone into one liquid impulse, an unbroken, unending stream of motion.

It was also about advancing the mythic proportions of this man. How many performances Baryshnikov has left in him, no one can say; he reportedly requires hours of daily physical therapy and extensive warm-ups to be able to dance as it is. But to see him share the stage with no one, especially to witness a performance marred by not one misstep, every turn cleanly calmed, every balance unerringly held, is to pocket a chunk of posterity. Which is why there was a stampede at the theater doors, why even blocks away from the theater, ticket-seekers began pestering passersby for seats.

The program's four dances (separated by musical interludes performed by the fine White Oak Chamber Ensemble) encapsulated the aim of the White Oak Dance Project to tap the best and brightest in the modern dance field. There was "Three Russian Preludes," by the high-profile Mark Morris, with Baryshnikov the co-founder of the project and a frequent contributor to the ensemble's repertoire. With Jose Limon's "Chaconne," from 1942, Baryshnikov paid tribute to modern dance's illustrious past. (These two works may sound familiar – he performed both in Washington two years ago.) And there were two new pieces: "Tryst," by young choreographer Kraig Patterson, who dances with the Mark Morris Dance Group and has created several other works for White Oak, and the world premiere of "HeartBeat: mb," a collaborative project conceived by sound artist Christopher Janney with "choreographic direction" by Sara Rudner. The latter involves a shirtless Baryshnikov's improvisation to his own heartbeat, amplified through a wireless device affixed to his chest.

Was any of the works a stunning piece of choreography? No, and the Janney-Rudner creation never transcended its gimmick. Would they have merited a second look if danced by anyone else? With the exception of "Chaconne," most likely not. Would Baryshnikov still stir the heart if he were to do a country line dance? For some unfathomable reason, yes. And so while the program didn't dazzle with conceptual brilliance, the dancer's seamless propulsion very nearly did.

Minimalism was the order of the evening, with spare, moody lighting, no sets, and Baryshnikov paired with a single musician in each work. "Tryst" is a curious title for a solo, but the emotional tides of secret romance were in it just the same. Patterson plays with torque and angles; Baryshnikov twists sharply from the waist, swings a leg high in front of him as he swivels his chest. At one point he stands downstage, looking into the distance as if locked in memory. His feet inch into a progressively wider stance – how long can he hold this position? – but the shadowy trails of melancholy crossing his face are even more riveting. As Bach's Concerto No. 3 in D Minor picks up, he bounds off, sailing into turns, throwing his arms over his head and his heels up behind him.

While "Tryst" mostly flaunted Baryshnikov's high energy, "Chaconne" emphasized his brooding nature. Limon created the work for himself, inspired by the Chaconne section of Bach's Partita No. 2 in D Minor for Solo Violin. A violinist (Nicolas Danielson) shares the stage with the dancer; between them they create grandeur and improbably bold forms. Baryshnikov is in black, against a black backdrop that expands the space, which he nevertheless seems to devour with straddle leaps and nimble footwork. Deliberately veering off axis, he spins around with one leg extended to the side, lifting it higher before coasting to a stop; there were audible gasps in the audience. Though it was created more than a half-century ago, this work, with its understated nobility, rivaled the new choreography.

When Baryshnikov performed "Three Russian Preludes," set to three piano solos by Shostakovich, at the Warner Theatre, it was with considerably darker tones than he gave it here. He seemed less a businessman caught in the undertow of inner demons than someone contentedly letting an internal engine take over, sending him into the air with propeller arms or wrenching him with disjointed limbs. The highly touted "HeartBeat" was something of a disappointment, though illuminating in a clinical sort of way; Baryshnikov's heart seemed startlingly fast right from the beginning (could it be nervousness?) and elevated considerably as he jogged and did some light jumps. But there was a lot of annoyingly muffled electronic feedback when he moved more strenuously, and Baryshnikov's improvisation – to the steady thumping, and, later in the piece, to Samuel Barber's second-movement Adagio from his String Quartet of 1936 – wasn't all that interesting.

What this work revealed, however, was the profundity of an artist such as we won't see again for some time. In his brilliant career, not only has he been an incomparable technical virtuoso, with uncanny dramatic and musical sensibilities; not only was he a heartthrob whose sad eyes scorched movie screens and spread his name around the world; not only has he been a farsighted impresario and promoter of choreographic talent – he is still seemingly as full of curiosity and drive to perfect this art form as when he was a student in St. Petersburg. It may seem that with Baryshnikov's move into modern dance – in truth, it was a gradual overlapping of genres, not a sudden departure – he's sucked the life out of ballet, robbing it of this century's greatest star. But in the process, he's given contemporary dance an immeasurable gift. How restorative it was to get a good, long look at him.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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