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Baryshnikov's Baby

White Oak may be billed as a group project, but there's no question who's the star

Perhaps the most impressive example of the impact that Mikhail Baryshnikov has had on dance -- not just in America, but in the world -- is that when he brings his White Oak Dance Project to Jones Hall next Tuesday and Wednesday, what he's doing won't seem all that unusual.

But it is. The White Oak Dance Project, named for an estate on the Georgia/Florida border that a Baryshnikov patron has provided as a training and rehearsal area, combines the greatest male classical ballet dancer of the last two decades with stars from modern dance companies such as Paul Taylor's, Merce Cunningham's, Mark Morris' and Twyla Tharp's, and then sets them to performing pieces created by a broad range of established and just beginning choreographers. It's artistic cross-pollination of a massive sort, and it's the sort of thing that, when Baryshnikov left Russia for the United States in the mid-'70s, was unheard of.

At the time, classical ballet and modern dance peered suspiciously at each other over a rather high wall. Choreographers and dancers might talk about admiring what others were doing, but actual movement from one camp to the other -- from Balanchine to Martha Graham, or Merce Cunningham to Paul Taylor -- was seen as defection as much as it was experimentation. The notion of a dancer dabbling in a variety of areas was frowned upon.

But then came Baryshnikov, with unassailable classical credentials as a star of the Kirov Ballet and an almost unquenchable fascination with modern dance. Indeed, it was to escape the constrictive requirements of the Kirov that he left Russia for the United States, and it must have seemed insane to him to suggest that in a world of freedom you had to choose one approach to dance and deny all others. In 1976, shortly after he arrived in America, he had Twyla Tharp choreograph "Push Comes to Shove" for him, and he hasn't looked back since. When he took over as artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre in 1980, he quickly commissioned works from not only Tharp but also Mark Morris, David Gordon and Karole Armitage.

A bare decade and a half later, that doesn't sound like much. Almost every major ballet company in America dabbles in a little eclecticism, from the New York City Ballet doing a performance in homage to and imitation of Fred Astaire to the Houston Ballet working dances set to the music of the Rolling Stones into their schedule. But at the time, Baryshnikov had to endure a storm of criticism from dance purists. That he endured, and that most of those purists would now count themselves among Baryshnikov's admirers, is a tribute not only to his skill as a dancer, but also to his tenacity.

It's a tribute further to the passing of time, and the ability of audiences to learn lessons. For that, Baryshnikov likely counts himself lucky. After all, his predecessors as male ballet icons -- Edward Villella in the '50s and '60s and Rudolf Nureyev in the '60s and '70s -- had little to go on to once their ability to dance classical ballet began to wane. Villella, the star of the NYCB who had his legs ruined by dancing on concrete floors in TV studios while becoming America's first widely recognizable ballet star, had to satisfy himself with teaching and consultation until he became director of the Miami City Ballet; Nureyev, wracked by disease as well as age, did direct the Paris Opera Ballet, but he was also reduced to being the main attraction of a piece of dance vaudeville, lending his name and reputation to a touring company in which he would come on-stage and flex little more than his charisma while considerably lesser dancers performed around him.

When Baryshnikov left the American Ballet Theatre in 1990 at age 42, he, too, could have turned his talents to movies (where he'd made a considerable impression in The Turning Point and White Nights), or else set up a star-turn touring company. But thanks to the ground he'd broken, he had a third option: focus his attention on modern dance, which is more forgiving of the limitations of older bodies than classical ballet.

That, in part, was the rationale behind White Oak, which started as a joint project between Baryshnikov and choreographic bad boy Mark Morris. At first, Morris provided all the dances and Baryshnikov provided the name that drew the broader audience. Baryshnikov still provides that latter service, but Morris has moved on to devote most of his time to his own dance troupe. Meanwhile, Baryshnikov has brought in choreographers from across the dance map as well as a company of dancers who almost match him in age. Though some members of the 12-person group are in their 20s -- among them a young discovery from the Merce Cunningham studio named Raquel Aedo -- ages in the 30s and 40s -- Baryshnikov at 47 is the oldest -- are more common. Indeed, the ages are so high from a dance standpoint that early on some members of White Oak joked that the company be called the Glue Factory (as in sending off old horses to) or the Pasture Project (as in being put out to).

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