Baryshnikov's Baby

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

But such jokes haven't hidden the serious nature of White Oak. Some have even pointed to it as a suggestion of where American dance may eventually be headed. It's breaking barriers between the schools of modern dance in the same way that Baryshnikov helped break the barriers between classical and modern two decades ago.

"The melding of the different dance vocabularies is, for me, the very essence of this company," says Suzanne Weil, White Oak's producer and a onetime director of the National Endowment for the Arts Dance Program. "One thing one sees about modern dance is how limiting it can be if you're only dancing the choreography of one dancer. And that's what you basically have in the U.S., or anywhere: companies doing the work of one choreographer. There are very few modern dance repertory companies to be found. And that's what helps set White Oak apart. I've heard Kate Johnson [a star in the '80s with Paul Taylor, and now a White Oak dancer] say this is like the great sandbox of dance. It's where you get to play."

That play has been done to considerable critical and audience approval. In its first tours, such as the one that brought White Oak through Houston in 1991, the virtuosity of the dancers wasn't as evident, if only because the bill was almost exclusively dedicated to Mark Morris works. But in the last few years, as works by Tharp and Cunningham and Eliot Feld and Jerome Robbins have been added, the ability of the company to shift from one very specific dance vocabulary to another has made it almost a traveling introduction to what modern dance is all about.

It's also threatened, as Kate Johnson has admitted, to make the company into a museum, or "the Muzak of modern dance" -- something that blends a variety of influences into a single bland substance. The trick of White Oak has been to maintain the individuality of the works, while creating a look that makes White Oak distinct. It's something that Weil, obviously not an unbiased observer but still a critical one, thinks the company has managed better the longer it's been in existence.

"I think it looks like White Oak," she says. "It comes from the people having performed together for a while now. What you have to remember is that these are all very good dancers. Yes, Baryshnikov is the name that people recognize, and he's probably the reason a lot of people show up, but many of these people were stars in their own companies, and for those who pay attention to the world of modern dance they're names that would be recognized. And from the reaction of the audiences, when the evening's over the other performers have become stars beside Baryshnikov."

That sort of balance is aided by the selection of dances. Though the company is smart enough to showcase its main attraction -- Baryshnikov gets solos almost every evening -- he also blends in as part of the troupe and, on occasion, turns the stage over completely to the rest of the company. And while some pieces have been set specifically on Baryshnikov -- such as "Pergolesi," a Twyla Tharp creation first done as a duet for her and Baryshnikov, then reworked as a solo piece, or "A Suite of Dances," created for Baryshnikov by the NYCB's Jerome Robbins (both of which, as it happens, will be danced in Houston) -- others have been designed specifically for the total company, among them "Blue Heron" by young choreographer Joachim Schlsmer (also scheduled for Houston) and "Greta in the Ditch" by another choreographic find, Tere O'Connor.

Without the image of Baryshnikov -- still trim and amazingly precise in his dancing, even if age has robbed him of a little of his bravura power -- coming on-stage to wow the crowd, it's unlikely that too many people would turn out for an evening of such choreography. But the fact in many places has been that while they come for the star, they end up liking what the star has shown them. And that, for Weil, may ultimately be the true legacy of White Oak.

Baryshnikov is just the sort of person who's able to get people to try new things, whether it be the dancers on-stage or the crowd in the auditorium. And just as his example has helped create a more eclectic ballet world, his example may as well help create a more eclectic, and curious, dance audience. So that when Baryshnikov gets to the age where he really has to retire, something such as White Oak could continue under its own power.

"I hope so," Weil says, "there's just too much here to let go simply because one person has to leave. Even if that person is Mikhail Baryshnikov."

White Oak Dance Project performs Tuesday, May 16 and Wednesday, May 17 at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana, 227-

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