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is Key to Baryshnikov's Staying Power
February 17, 2004
-- Barbican, London
Exactly thirty years ago
this month, in February 1974, I first saw Mikhail Baryshnikov dance in
gloomy Soviet Leningrad only months before his defection to the west.
Over the years I saw him dance a number of times and later saw his films
and am now watching his TV appearances: This is a man with staying power
by anyone’s standards.
Baryshnikov reinvented himself as a modern dancer some years ago, and
it would be cynical to say that he made the move to stay stage centre
when he could no longer cut the mustard as a ballet dancer. But the fact
remains that his stock in trade was always virtuosity. I remember him
for how he danced rather than what he danced. He lacked the charisma of
a Nureyev or Vasiliev, nor did he have the elegance of the western dancers
with whom he eventually competed; you went to see Baryshnikov for dazzling
displays of technique and you were seldom disappointed.
Last night the Barbican was packed for this dancing legend appearing in
a programme of specially created works entitled “Solos With Piano or not…”
Well, he didn’t dance just solos and the music wasn’t just that of a piano,
so “or not” was the order of the evening. The first half comprised the
promised danced solos alternating with a solo pianist, Pedja Muzijevic,
(also Baryshnikov’s accompanist). These were the equivalent of danced
sonatas with dancer and musician presenting what was in essence a dance
recital. Two of the three pieces that made up the first half struck me
as looking more like improvisation than choreographed works with the dancer
very much in self-absorbed mood. The exception was the witty “Indoor Man”
choreographed by Tere O’Connor in which Baryshnikov made his entrance
encased in a box-like structure complete with interior lighting, rather
like a tortoise in his shell, before loosing this encumbrance to explore
the outside world.
After the interval there was a marked change of mood with Baryshnikov
paying homage to his adopted American heritage in “Yazoo”, by that wonderful
veteran choreographer Eliot Feld, to a selection of terrific vintage blues
numbers. This was the sound of the south with laid-back dance accompaniment.
Next came the surprise of the evening – Michael Clark no less, together
with members of his company in a specially choreographed work oddly titled
“nevertheless caviar” to music by the Beatles. You could feel a current
of excitement in the audience the moment Clark appeared on stage. Like
Baryshnikov, he is now past his prime, but his stage presence remains
electric, and though on stage for mere minutes he utterly eclipsed the
paler aura of the evening’s star. I’m sure “Back in the USSR” was the
most appropriate choice from the Beatles repertoire from Clark’s point
of view, but it appeared to be performed with a marked lack of enthusiasm
The final work “Mr XYZ”, again by Eliot Feld, had a highly theatrical
feel as stage hands and technicians joined Baryshnikov in his portrayal
of an elderly performer hobbling around with his stick and reduced to
dancing with a dress makers dummy. There were some amusing references
to other roles, such as Apollo and the Prodigal Son, the stick doubling
as Apollo’s lyre and the prodigal’s staff. A pair of girls came on in
black tights strewing lilies in wili-like fashion perhaps as a reminder
of earlier days.
I’m told seats for this event are not to be had for love nor money – a
testimony to the power of memory.
Edited by Holly Messitt
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