Baryshnikov's Baby

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).

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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