Hell’s Kitchen Dance
Howard Gilman Performance Space
Baryshnikov Arts Center
New York, NY
June 23, 2007 (matinee)

by Susan Reiter
copyright © 2007 by Susan Reiter   

It seemed poignant and oddly appropriate that, while the two major ballet companies with which he performed so spectacularly during an earlier period were holding forth on grand Lincoln Center stages with velvet curtains for several thousand people, Mikhail Baryshnikov was revealing his exquisite mature artistry in an unadorned, intimate black-box space 25 blocks to the south for about 200 fortunate spectators. The setting, the repertory, the project itself — an unpretentious ensemble, most of them still in or just past their undergraduate years, that he has assembled for its second summer of touring — suggest how unconcerned Baryshnikov is with the grander trappings of celebrity or stature, and how much he currently revels in the process of creation and in a direct, forthright approach to performance. Yes, the four-performance run was preceded by a major New York Times feature and a (by network TV standards) generous profile on the “Today Show,” so one could hardly say his performances took place completely under the radar. But the matter-of-fact tone of the presentation — from the no-frills printed program to the de facto star’s lack of star curtain calls — was as far removed as possible from “uptown” glamour and hype.

Baryshnikov was the only dancer to appear in both works on the program, and his performance manner in this fascinating autumn of his career is often severe — intensely focused, though not introspective. Every now and then, a sly, delighted smile spreads across his face, and one senses it does not emerge from a “let me entertain you” desire to engage with his audience but rather reflects a deep inner satisfaction he derives from navigating new, unexpected challenges and movement possibilities. His revelatory dancing blends fluidity, precision and gravitas. He cannot strike a position that does not resonate with lustrous purity, but he is now as fascinated by, and adept at, giving his weight to gravity as he once was with soaring in defiance of it. And he can certainly still move with lightness and crisp authority through considerable technical challenges.

Neither of the dances — Donna Uchizono’s “Leap to Tall” and Aszure Barton’s “Come In” — was a premiere, although both were being seen in New York City for the first time, since for its initial season, Hell’s Kitchen Dance, despite having birthed its creations at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, performed only out of town. This year, the troupe opted for this low-key presentation just before embarking on a tour — to Brazil, Spain and several U.S. stops — that will continue through mid-August.

Uchizono’s slyly intriguing, if choppy, trio gave Baryshnikov the most understated entrance possible. As Jodi Melnick and Hristoula Harakas entered from the wings and inched sideways insinuatingly, their backs to us and hips swaying ever so slightly, a shape was barely discernible in the darkness at the far side of the space. By the time there was enough light to reveal his lean, alert form, in black t-shirt and stretch pants with quirky gray designs, the dance had launched along its episodic way. With the women — two particularly resonant and authoritative dancers with major “downtown” resumes — setting the tone and casting him as an outsider to their quirky, intimate rituals, Baryshnikov’s role seemed that of an outsider trying to infiltrate — and comprehend — their secretive mind-games.

Introduced with a harsh, grinding assault of machine-like noise, “Leap to Tall” was mainly set to a score, by Michael Floyd and Iva Bittova, that alternated moody violin and eerily sensual vocals. There were frequent pauses, as well as abrupt lighting changes, all of which kept the work marking time rather than achieving momentum. But within its cryptic, episodic structure there was much that resonated and fascinated. Odd hieratic arm gestures were initiated by one or two dancers, then picked up by another. A recurring one had them slapping a fist into the opposite palm.

The women wore layered, unusual dresses, made of material with a gentle sheen. Sometimes they seemed allied against the outsider, but at other times it was a free-for-all, as they rearranged themselves in various lines and configurations and anyone could partner anyone else. No one left the stage for long, and each time one did, and the other two barely began their duet before that would appear again quietly making his or her way back from the wings. The piece seemed to offer the idea of a duet as a tease, only to return to the possibilities of the trio, and often the women seemed to protect or shelter Baryshnikov.

Barton’s “Come In” offered Baryshnikov as role model, one of the gang, a solitary figure amidst the crowd, and at one exhilarating point, pretty much the equal of the young, boldly vigorous younger men, as he joined them in leaps and swift, juicy movement that he executes with galvanizing energy and that unique clarity and that pristine phrasing that imprints each movement on the memory so powerfully.

She has set the large-scale work, which features a cast of thirteen (including herself and some members of her company), to a melancholy, somewhat over-extended score for strings by Vladimir Martynov (performed by Kremerata Baltica) that contains echoes of Dvorak. Intermittent film projections show wintry countryside vistas, often juxtaposing snow and bodies of water.

The varied black costumes are simple yet elegant. Baryshnikov, in collared shirt and belted slacks, cuts a more severe figure here. Barton creates fluid, lush sequences that sweep through space, but the dance is a lot like its score: striking, often beautiful passages come and go, but the big picture doesn’t quite come into focus. There are meditative portions, including a moemnet when everyone is seated in rows of chairs, facing a downstage corner where Baryshnikov sits at the apex. This, too, dissolves as smoothly as it established itself.

Seven of the dancers are current of recent Juilliard students; three are from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. They radiate keen intelligence and openness, qualities that they can clearly experience and absorb in spades from the veteran who performs in their midst as first among equals.

Top two, from "Leap to Tall" by Stephanie Berger.
Botton: "Come In" by Nancy J. Parisi.

Volume 5, No. 26
July 1, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Susan Reiter

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