"IT'S TRUE, I am very busy," said Mikhail Baryshnikov, the dancer "I extraordinary who this fall began his second year as artistic director of American Ballet Theatre. With dual roles of administrating and performing, "I don't have time to wash my hands in the morning," he added with a self-deprecatory chuckle in a telephone interview from New York. "Of course, there are ups and downs, but I'm not really finding it a problem. Right now the company is in very good shape -- my own injuries are pretty well healed -- and we're greatly looking forward to the season in Washington."
Baryshnikov will be in town tonight for the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, at which he will both speak and dance in appreciation of honoree Jerome Robbins, a choreographer with whom he's enjoyed a close working relationship. The ABT season will commence almost immediately thereafter, Tuesday evening at the Opera House, starting a month-long engagement that will be highlighted early on by the world premiere of Kenneth MacMillan's "The Wild Boy," with Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova in leading parts.
One big change since ABT's last appearance here will be in the Opera House stage floor. The chronic problem of the floor's dangerous lack of resilience appears to be on the point of solution. A removable, sectional floor covering is scheduled to be installed in time for the ABT visit."I think it's a terrific floor," said Baryshnikov. "It's the salvation for us. We used it throughout our recent run in Boston's new Metropolitan Center, and it worked marvelously."See BALLET, K5, Col. 1 BALLET, From K1
In his first year as ABT director, Baryshnikov concentrated on improving both the status and morale of company dancers, by strictly limiting the numbers of guest stars and apportioning important roles across the board to all ranks. He also sought to assure company and public alike that he'd continue to nourish ABT's choreographic legacy, particularly in respect to native American ballets. And he also made a start on revamping some of the staler staples of the classical repertory, such as "Swan Lake" and "Giselle."
There will be some newcomers to company ranks this season, particularly at the corps de ballet level -- one is Hilary Canary, formerly of the Washington Ballet -- and some promotions as well: Cheryl Yeager and Robert La Fosse, who clearly profited last year from Baryshnikov's talent-scouting policy, have been named soloists. At the top, one notes a few comings and goings -- Patrick Bissell is back with the company, Gelsey Kirkland is gone, and Fernando Bujones, for a second consecutive season, will not be dancing in Washington. But the chief thrust of Baryshnikov's second year will come from invigorating drafts of new repertory, as the coming Washington programs will illustrate.
MacMillan's "The Wild Boy," which will receive its first performance anywhere Saturday night at the Opera House, has music by Gordon Crosse. The one-act ballet calls for four principals (Baryshnikov, Makarova, Kevin MacKenzie and La Fosse) and a large corps of men, runs about 40 minutes. It was commissioned specially by ABT, a circumstance Baryshnikov finds gratifying. "I'm especially pleased we were able to bring so many creative people together," he says. "The end result no one can predict, and it doesn't really matter that much -- what's important is that we understand collaborations like this." Only the music is not brand new, but the composer, Crosse, has been working with MacMillan to adapt the score to the needs of the choreography.
"The ballet has a story," Baryshnikov says, "which is very clearly outlined, but there are no realistic details; the treatment is largely abstract. Though I have the title role, the four leading dancers have equal parts. Kenneth took the general theme of the conflict between nature and civilization -- I am captured in the woods and become a sort of companion to the woman -- but he drew upon many different sources, even Tarzan and Kipling's Mowgli."
Another ABT commission is the one awarded to Choo San Goh for "Configurations," which was previewed in October at a gala benefit for the Washington Ballet, in a performance by Baryshnikov, Marianna Tcherkassky and a contingent of ABT dancers. It was later given its official premiere by ABT in Minneapolis; at the Kennedy Center it will be seen both with the original cast and a second that features Martine van Hamel and Kevin McKenzie. "I really enjoy dancing this ballet," Baryshnikov says, "and I'm still trying to find the essence of the movement. Probably my performance here will be very different from the preview -- some things change automatically, and Choo San, who is still rehearsing it with us, has given me enough elbow room to play with this and that."
A ballet that will receive its first performance by ABT during the Kennedy Center visit is George Balanchine's "Bourre'e Fantasque" of 1949, to music by Chabrier. Baryshnikov, who had seen the work in London years ago, picked it, but when he proposed a revival to Balanchine, the answer was, "Oh no, dear, it's too old-fashioned, and besides, nobody remembers the steps." But choreographic notation scores were found, in both the Benesh and Laban systems. With the help of former Balanchine dancers such as Diana Adams and Patricia Wilde, the ballet was restaged to Balanchine's evident delight -- he agreed to put finishing touches on it himself. According to Baryshnikov, "It's a jazzy, adorable piece."
In addition to Baryshnikov's own full-length audience favorites, "Don Quixote" and "Nutcracker," plus other repertory items, the season will also include ABT premieres of Roland Petit's "Carmen" and Eliot Feld's "Variations on America" -- all in all, a richly promising mix.