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Flash Review 1, 6-10: All Bubble-Wrapped Up and No Where to Go
Baryshnikov Lowers the Barre

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2002 Aimee Ts’ao

BERKELEY, CA -- After seeing the May 30 performance of the White Oak Dance Project with Mikhail Baryshnikov at Zellerbach Hall, I began reflecting on what it meant to be a performer past the "prime" of his/her career, but still finding ways to continue on the stage. In a flash I was transported back just over 35 years ago, when I was still in high school, to an evening of readings by the English actor Basil Rathbone, only a few months before his death at age 75. I had been completely mesmerized by Rathbone's presence, by his voice and the way he used it, and by the poetry and monologues from plays he had chosen to read. Obviously, he no longer had the physical stamina to perform an entire play, yet he was still capable of holding the attention of the audience by tailoring his material to suit his capabilities without sacrificing anything on the artistic side.

I do enthusiastically applaud Mikhail Baryshnikov for lending his famous name and body to the cause of widening the audience for modern dance and exposing it to choreographers that would likely never been seen outside of New York or one of a rather limited number of places. That Baryshnikov has used the White Oak Dance Project both as a means to keep hiimself performing and a showcase for new choreography and restagings of historically important modern works is of immense value to him and to us. Unfortunately, and I always seem to play devil's advocate, I have a few questions about the whole process.

Rathbone had the difficulty of almost exclusively being identified with his role as Sherlock Holmes despite his deliberate attempts to change that perception. Baryshnikov has the problem of having been an exhilarating dancer who jumped and turned and executed steps that seemed to defy the laws of physics. I never felt that the emotional realm was his forte. While Nureyev could simply stand on stage and exude a powerful presence, Baryshnikov needed to be in motion to cast his spell. So when the body, however gracefully it may be aging, can longer perform these feats, what is left? Baryshnikov still moves as smoothly as butter and performs every move as well as anyone else on stage, though the difficulty of the steps he attempts for White Oak is certainly several notches down from what he used to do. The problem, as I see it, is the relative worth of the choreography he has decided to present. While Rathbone read Shakespeare and other equally famous writers (I can't remember any more than that), White Oak performed the equivalent of Robert Frost and Dr. Seuss. (I like both writers, but they are in a different category.)

The program, presented by Cal Performances, opens with Lucinda Childs's "Largo," originally a solo for herself to Corelli's Concerto Grossi, Opus 6, here danced by Baryshnikov. Serenely contemplative, the simplicity of the choreography works for and against it. I appreciate the cleanness of line and steps, though I long for more variations on the theme, and more use of the entire body. (So much modern dance features leg and footwork, some arms but without nuance, and a rather erect torso. More cerebral than visceral.)

"Early Floating," an Erick Hawkins piece from 1961 to Lucia Dlugoszewski's music, "Five Curtains of Timbre," employs three men and a woman. The use of arms is even more minimal than in the previous piece and the only time I sense the dancers interacting with each other is in a brief duet between Emily Coates and Roger C. Jeffrey. Coates also floats some deliciously delicate balances. The lack of movement in the trunk of the body leaves an impression of stick men dancing, though at least they do that quite well.
Mikhail Baryshnikov, Emily Coates, and the White Oak Dance Project in Sarah Michelson's "The Experts." Scott Suchman photo courtesy Cal Performances

The big event of the evening comes after intermission, Sarah Michelson's "The Experts," commissioned for White Oak. This is the above mentioned Dr. Seuss piece. It's goofy and a definite change from the first two pieces. The stage is covered in bubble wrap, a la Pina Bausch, though it is certainly easier to clean up than soil or carnations. We get to laugh at the constant popping that occurs with nearly every step. Many of the sections are too repetitive or just too long and the whole thing lacks development. In reading the program notes I learn that Michelson normally works in more intimate venues and works on a piece far longer than the five weeks she was given for this one, so that may explain why. Despite those shortcomings, I enjoyed the actual dancing.

The evening closes with another piece by Lucinda Childs, "Chacony," to several pieces by Benjamin Britten: "Burlesque" from String Quartet No. 3, "Tarantella Presto Vivace" from "Sinfonetta" and "Chacony Sostenuto" from String Quartet No. 2. Again, the clarity is very calming, but the limitations of a rather pedestrian vocabulary, especially when it echoes the same steps of "Largo,, makes me want something more. There are moments when Sonia Kostich, who has a very strong ballet background, uses a hint of epaulment, or a tender inclination of the head, and suddenly I imagine the amazing possibilities for this piece if those kinds of coloring had been choreographed into it.

There must be a few choreographers out there who could provide more interesting choreography while still allowing Baryshnikov to perform. Simple and technically easier to perform does not necessarily mean boring or simple-minded. Just witness Nederlands Dans Theater 3.

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