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Mikhail Baryshnikov

Dazzling Technique is Key to Baryshnikov's Staying Power

by Cassandra

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 by Baryshnikov.

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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