writers on dancing


He Never Dances
in the Same River Twice

Mikhail Baryshnikov
Zellerbach Playhouse
June 2003

reviewed by Ann Murphy

Timing is everything. Late in June I saw Mikhail Baryshnikov in a solo performance at the Zellerbach Playhouse in Berkeley accompanied by the pianist Koji Attwood. The next day, cleaning through the unwieldy heaps in my study, swearing to make order before summer hit, I stumbled upon an issue of Dance Ink from the winter of 1993. I flipped to a reprint of a review, now nearly thirty years old that told of Baryshnikov’s historic performance at the Maryinsky Theater in February 1974, a few months before he defected to the West. Written by Vera Krassovskaya and translated by Vera Komarova-Scanlan and Elizabeth Kendall, it was repressed in the Soviet Union for a decade, reprinted in Dance Ink another decade later, and, ten years after that, serendipitous fodder for my thoughts on the concert.

The high-priced Berkeley event, with tickets at $86 and $60 to raise money for the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York, was an evening Baryshnikov casually called "Solos with Piano or Not…an Evening of Music and Dance." It had about it the searching but playful character that had come to define the White Oak project. The difference was that the "Solos" performance was presented by Baryshnikov alone on an intimate scale in a theater with 500 seats. This gave it an arty, "downtown" air rather than the flashy, polished feel you get in a large concert hall, even if the audience was the same.

While people often haven’t known what to think about the Russian emigré’s offbeat efforts, their faith in him is constantly buoyed by his stardom. In fact, his star status gets people to pay attention to dance they wouldn’t otherwise view, even for free. Think of him as the John Lennon of the ballet world: heartbreakingly lyrical, endlessly versatile, and a moody outsider intent on using his fame and wealth to push artistic boundaries rather than to bask in the fatuities of power and fortune. That he has something profound to demonstrate, and that he subverts the art hierarchy while using it to push the art form, makes him something of a noble anti-hero, a rare phenomenon in any realm.

But none of this is new. What Krassovskaya reports is that thirty years ago at the Maryinsky, Baryshnikov was commissioning work, undermining the expectations the public had of his virtuosity, and opting for intellectual and emotional depth in performance even though it was dangerous for him to do so. Before he fled the Soviet Union, he performed three dances made for him, and what Krassovskaya writes about that concert is eerily apt today: "Some were upset at the absence of obvious virtuosity, though everyone could see that the demands of plasticity, on Baryshnikov above all, were unusual. Others noticed that the content of each ballet didn’t lie on the surface. Indeed, each ballet’s content unfolded in a complex interaction between the music and the dancing…."

Something almost identical could be said of Saturday’s concert. While Baryshnikvov displayed even less of his historic virtuosity than he did in last year’s White Oak concert, and he seemed less physically agile, he also evinced greater depth and plasticity. The concert began with Koji Atwood playing a delicate and sinewy sonata by Antonio Soler, followed by Shumann’s Fantasy Pieces, opus 12, to which Baryshnikov performed Ruth Davidson Hahn’s unseasoned work Upon a Whim. Dressed in Issac Mizrahi’s slinky white nylon warm-up suit with a lilac lapel against a lilac shirt, Baryshnikov at first looked sallow as he went through Hahn’s academic floor patterns, random semaphoring arms, and sudden shoulder, hip and knee rotations that looked sprung from a Pilates mat class.

What happened next, though, was quintessential Baryshnikov. He took seemingly inconsequential movement and through his probing intelligence freighted Hahn’s vague arabesque turns and dreamy saut de l’ange leaps with import. By the time Baryshnikov was deep into the evening’s third dance (Lucinda Childs’ Opus One to Alban Berg’s Sonata opus 1), it became clear that Baryshnikov was demonstrating how a shared vocabulary of angular arm gestures, similar geometric floor patterns, and glosses on iconic ballet steps (from Siegfried to the Prodigal Son) are like distinct paths to the same beach.

While it would be overstating it to say that Baryshnikov built a conceptual art experience out of the material, he began to stitch an intellectual through-line the instant he took up a repeat in Upon a Whim. First, we were hooked by recognizing the steps. Then, with the sleight of hand that makes him among the supplest, thinking performers alive, he changed the intention of the repeated phrase in order to convey that the movement might be the same and the spacing might be identical, but the moment was different. By deepening his interior focus and adding coloring that wasn’t there before—the casual angel step getting dreamier, the flattened second position arms becoming more determinedly angular—he made it clear: you can never dance in the same river twice.

This is a significant part of what makes Baryshnikov still so exciting to watch at 55. As he moves, and even as his movement compass shrinks by virtue of the limits age imposes even on the best of dancers, he is able to infuse repeated patterns with an air of subtle transformation. Change comes without moral or ideological baggage: he neither lauds nor deplores it. He simply embodies it.

In this modest way he establishes an artistic commitment to nonheroic material and the poetry of change. Krassovskaya says Baryshnikov shuns "obvious effects in favor of poetic harmony and unity of the concert." While Baryshnikov, in fact, knows how to use "obvious effects" when he needs to, he does assiduously look for ways to make dance be and speak for itself again, rescuing it from the throes of cliches, artificiality and pyrotechnics. This is what, to me, it concretely means when Krassovskaya says he "embodies Nijinky’s unrealized dream of returning to the sphere of the pure music of dance." With an expressive capacity of seeming limitless depth and nuance, and with his gifts of mind channeled through his body, Baryshnikov can make most dance speak.

But even Baryshnikov’s dancing speaks best when the music and choreography equal one another, as they did exquisitely in Childs’ Opus One and Cesc Galabert’s In A Landscape, to John Cage’s early piano work of the same name. (Both Berg and Cage studied with Arnold Schönberg.) In these dances, the dancer’s sublimity as an artist was met by the imaginative and musical richness of the material. By placing the dances on either side of the intermission, the content of each, as Krassovskaya put it, unfolded in complex interaction.

In Opus One Baryshnikov dressed in snug red trunks, revealing a boyish, chiseled body and giving him the iconic look of a swimmer. In fact, I thought Baryshnikov personified the resolute solitude of John Cheever’s Neddy Merrill, the disaffected man who swims eight miles from pool to pool one summer night in the suburbs. Childs accomplished this feat through an accretion of quiet movement focused on isolated releases of weight—a curve of the torso over bent legs, a single outstretched leg pulling the body, an athletic swinging arm—that were then gathered back into a quiet center and eventually repeated, mirroring a similar pattern of tension, relaxation and transformation in the progression of the music. Gelabert’s In A Landscape was a magical study of the body moving around its central axis, as Cage’s dreamy score ebbed and flowed around a still point. The world here, as seen through the eyes of this Spanish choreographer, was as sensually radiant as Childs’ was beautifully stoic.

It’s important to remember that while Baryshnikov is serious, he’s no bore. His transformations are as apt to be lighthearted as they are solemn. Krassovskaya never mentions the younger dancer’s humor. Perhaps he first had to defect to a land where everyone has the freedom to be fatuous in order to unleash his own inner clown. Whatever it took, his capacity for humor has given us everything from the impish acrobat in Push Comes To Shove, to the guy who a few years ago amplified his heartbeat, like a troubled cardiac patient. Baryshnikov also has enormous ability to mock himself, and implicitly, anyone who worships him.

Tere O’Connor’s witty minimalist/surrealist Indoor Man, part Kafka, part Charlie Chaplin, offered the darkest humor of the night. Set to David Jaggard’s "Elastic Tango,"{ and Conlan Nancarrow’s "Tango?," Indoor Man framed Baryshnikov in what looked like a large drawer, trapping him from the waist up. Inside O’Connor fashioned a room replete with light switch, twinkling candelabra lights and wallpaper, while on the back of the box he put a fuzzy reprint of a Vermeer woman, and along an end a Van Gogh bedroom.

After engaging in the gestural language of early morning—swiping the face, scouring the teeth, rootering water out the ear—he launched a dance by tilting to the right. It caused the visual equivalent of an earthquake, as the entire room teetered perilously and hilariously. When Baryshnikov freed himself from "indoors", he entered an outside world where another "window," this one of light and shadow, caught him as he danced.

As though to prepare us for the over-the-top finale by Eliot Feld (the likes of which he probably never performed at the Maryinsky), we got Brit Michael Clark’s glitzy Rattle Your Jewelry. Clark offered up Baryshnikov as the callow superstar in sexy black and tan garb, performing an angular mechanical ballet that looked like a Forsythe gloss in slo mo. Baryshnikov smirked and winked as he leaped like a rock star to the Beatles’ "Back In the USSR," the lyrics blasting: "You don’t know how lucky you are—Back in the USSR." Everyone laughed; there were so many layers of irony here that even the irony had irony.

But the broadest humor was reserved for Eliot Feld’s soft-shoe send-up, Mr. XYZ, set to the naughty-voiced tunes of Leon Redbone. Decking Baryshnikov in pork pie hat, suspenders, shades, and a cane, Feld managed to make the piece both a paen and a spoof on the star, a look back at the man who out-hoofed Broadway up at Lincoln Center and a look forward to the geezer still dreaming about beautiful young girls. Like the shape-changing creature he is, Baryshnikov managed to be young and ancient at the same time, boyishly randy and a lusty old man remembering his youth. Finally, Feld hit us over the head with a last joke: two young leotard-clad women appeared to offer Myrtha’s lilies to the washed up Albrecht.

Washed up? Far from it. To prove it, Baryshnikov pulled the lighting technician from her chair, danced a tender two-step with her and drew ahhs full of envy from the audience. Baryshnikov may never dance in the same river twice, but he also knows that matinee idols never die.

copyright Ann Murphy 2003

Photo:  Baryshnikov in Mr. XYZ. Photo by Thomas Giroir



Baryshnikov Dance Foundation

The Foundation Center
brief article on Baryshnikov's new New York arts center

a pesonal page by contralto Karen Mercedes

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page last updated: July 19, 2003