Dance superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov has guts. He and his six-member White Oak Dance Project presented three performances last weekend at Meany Hall, and because Baryshnikov demands such a high fee, each patron was charged $75 to cover costs. In a town like Seattle, where dance audiences are accustomed to spending no more than between $10 and $35 per seat, it was testament more to Baryshnikov's legend than to the draw of the cryptic programming that the three evenings nearly sold out. This megastar is willing to bet the viability of White Oak on his reputation, and with good reason: Talent aside, Baryshnikov's name recognition alone guarantees an audience. He could pull a paying crowd even if all he did was stand on his head for two hours. Audiences don't care what he's performing; they just want to be in the same room with the most marketed dancer of this century.
White Oak Dance Project
Meany Hall, May 20
For readers unfamiliar with the Baryshnikov phenomenon, a brief synopsis: born in 1948, in Latvia; studied ballet with the master teacher Alexander Pushkin; soloist with the Kirov Ballet for seven years; defected in 1974 to the West during a Canadian tour; star of American Ballet Theater for four years and George Balanchine's New York City Ballet for one; returned to assume artistic directorship of ABT for nine more. Three films along the way—The Turning Point, White Nights, and Dancers—secured his commercial fame. Televised specials, a clothing line, and a Baryshnikov perfume followed. With unprecedented skill, smoldering looks, and several high-profile relationships (he fathered a child with actress Jessica Lange), it's no wonder Baryshnikov achieved household status the likes of Madonna and Michael Jordan. Despite marketing appeal, his primary claim to fame has always been off-the-charts technique and exquisite artistry.
Now, at 51, Baryshnikov's virtuosity is no longer expressed through hovering leaps or perfectly executed multiple turns. He undergoes two hours of physical therapy each day just to get through rehearsal and has survived five knee surgeries. Yet, as evidenced by last Thursday's performance, his command of the stage is astonishing. Witnessing Baryshnikov's hypnotic power in Tamasaburo Bando's Dance with Three Drums and Flute was worth the price of admission alone.
In this fiendishly difficult solo based on traditional Japanese dance, Baryshnikov basically just scuffles around making stiff arm gestures to the minimal taped sounds of the title (and an ascending Japanese voice). But in one extraordinary section where all he ostensibly does is raise and lower his toes, his focus and rhythmic accuracy manage to silence and hold spellbound the entire fidgeting 1,200-person house. There's a quality of subservience to the work in Baryshnikov's subtle performance that is very humbling. Instead of showing off with familiar pyrotechnics (like Nuryev did well past his prime), Baryshnikov pushes himself and the audience to delve into new territory. He is less interested in maintaining popularity than in maturing into a great, rare artist, like a master who applies gold leaf. In recent years, he's chosen works for White Oak that are considered fringe, even arcane. This attitude, risky in the capitalist market, distinguishes White Oak from any other American touring ensemble.
Baryshnikov founded White Oak Dance Project (with choreographer Mark Morris) in 1990, one year after leaving his nine-year post as artistic director of American Ballet Theater. From the start he envisioned the endeavor not as a company, with a board of directors, grants, and deficits, but as a pick-up project. The name White Oak refers to the location of a rehearsal studio built by his friend and supporter, the late Howard Gilman.
White Oak Plantation is a 7,500-acre wildlife preserve located on the FloridaGeorgia border. Baryshnikov chooses mature, seasoned dancers to accompany him on international tours (more than 30 and counting). The first year, White Oak only performed works by Morris. Since then the list of choreographers whose works have been performed by White Oak reads like a who's who of modern dance: Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, Jerome Robbins, Hanya Holm, Martha Graham, Meredith Monk, Jos頌im�and Merce Cunningham.
On the recent program, Baryshnikov's second appearance was in Morris' new work, The Argument. Oddly enough, he looks out of place in this folksy dance, like a top-of-the-line chardonnay served in a beer stein. Susan Shields captured that slightly mawkish and depraved quality of Morris' work better—ragged around the edges, tending toward melodrama. When she kicks and stomps it's not hard to imagine her lipstick smudged, her mascara running, a run in her stocking, and a faint stench of cigarette smoke and booze. Intentionally or not, she also pulls off a crackerjack imitation of veteran Morris dancer Tina Fehlandt, right down to the jutting jaw and sassy hair bob. Morris may have intended the contrast. But given Baryshnikov's charisma, even when he looks out of place he's more captivating than anyone else in the room.