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Baryshnikov Dance Foundation - 'Hell’s Kitchen Dance'

by Toba Singer

June 17, 2006 -- Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, California

“Ya can’t getta ticket—all sold out!” a man in line at the box office complains. Musical Offering, one of the several failing small businesses on the fringes of the University of California Berkeley campus didn’t get the “sold out” memo. When we called there for dinner reservations, we learned that the restaurant would be closed: there weren’t enough reservations to justify staying open. Capitalism hasn’t been "very very good” to them, and after my companion and I down a crepe each, sitting on stools in the mostly takeout creperie that is the last outpost, I find myself wondering what Mikhail Baryshnikov, having seen it from both sides now, would say about the economic system that has shamelessly showcased him as its prize “refugee.”

The company he has put together pulsates with authenticity. The dancers bring to mind their Mark Morris and Matthew Bourne counterparts: The women are of all shapes, sizes and nationalities. The men tend to have classical bodies. What unites them? They move, and they dance with a collective passion that issues from a shared artistic life as an ensemble company, even if that history is relatively short. If there is a virtuoso (besides its founder) among them, the work is not intended to spotlight him or her. The virtuoso days are over for Misha, and so that element will not be present, except on video. That is not to say that the dancers are in any way muzzled or discouraged from getting out ahead of Baryshnikov. That would be silly: they have youthful spines and energy. Still, nobody’s ballon has them hanging in the air, and no dancer does more than eight pirouettes, because those kinds of hyperbolic items are not on the agenda for this company. Instead, Baryshnikov has chosen to simply show the works of two young choreographers: Aszure Barton, a Canadian, who trained and studied with National Ballet of Canada before establishing her own company in the United States, and Benjamin Millepied, the Conservatoire Nationale Superieure de Paris-trained dancer, who is currently a principal with New York City Ballet.

In “Over/Come,” by Barton, the accompanying music opens with a scream—the kind that might come from a 1950s teenaged fan when face to face with her rock and roll idol. Thirteen of the company’s 14 dancers (Misha is the 14th) file in wearing the casual clothes teens wear. They stop and strike individual poses which they hold or manipulate during the song, “How Wonderful to Know.” Some of the women dancers actually have adult-sized breasts, and one of the men stands on his head while the remainder of the company works at looking like the culture they live in is anything but “wonderful to know.” The house lights remain at half for the entire piece. The English language music ends, and the new samba rhythm score has lyrics that seem to be in the international language of Esperanto; we are hearing Italian one moment, Portuguese the next and then French. Here we begin to see little dioramas of each dancer’s talents. One dancer has great rhythmic hip arcs, another has amazing feet, and yet another does impossibly subtle things with her head. Each and every dancer has exceptional musicality and timing. It’s because they love to dance; nobody made them come to this place against their will, literally or figuratively.

The backdrop fades to purple, a couple kisses, and the musical selection is “In the Summertime,” with a single dancer in a black and white striped shirt, doing isolations that introduce an entire necklace of dancers strung across the stage like Keith Haring figures, an assemblage of odd cartoon characters. They are “drawn” like springs or angles, into which they import their own lexicon of port de bras. There’s more Esperanto singing—or is this Italian? It has a smoky, bistro beat, which invites choreography for couples. I am translating the lyrics in my head, “Just give me your answer…” they say. The urgency of the question is answered equally urgently by couples whose response is to tango. The ballad “Are You Sincere?” takes urgent questions a degree deeper, and a trio of women configured like statues resists answering, while Aszure Barton works at balancing on the rising torso of a male dancer who begins their duet prostrate on the floor. The climax of the piece arrives when a shorthaired dancer, whose low center of gravity is accentuated by her halter bodice and denim shorts, delivers a strong, energetic solo, while dancers who form a semi-circle behind her urge her on. The piece comes to an end with a reprise of “How Wonderful to Know,” and when the curtain comes down, you might wonder whether U.S. youth of the fifties could have been as vulnerable as they are made to look in this piece by the young Canadian choreographer? Or, could this be her protest against the shallow and reductionist Hollywood version that is passed off as the coin of that realm in our culture?

“Years Later,” by Millepied, is charged with the ambitious and double-edged mission of introducing us to Baryshnikov, the 58-year-old dancer and artistic director, and re-introducing us to his younger self, the dancer with whom all other 20th century male dancers will be compared. The house lights are all the way down now, as is customary. Misha and Barton make their entrance as partners. Just as you are getting used to him partnering a dancer who is as unlike Gelsey Kirkland or Natalia Makarova as anyone can be, screened images appear on the backdrop. They are of Misha in a setting like The Hamptons, a beach near a lagoon, with scrubby brush and beach grass in the background. We are introduced to Misha’s face and torso from a number of angles: at close range and further away, until we see all of him, dressed in a black shirt and wheat jeans. The camera follows his arms, hands and head; it studies their topography and how they move, ungestured, in relation to a table. It is a different kind of port de bras, as natural and insistent as the beach and the sun that is beating down with enough intensity to cause Baryshnikov to squint.

The locus shifts to a pair of adjacent distressed, sun-bleached walls. Now Misha is dancing full out, coiling his arms around his spine. An arm repeatedly invites the camera in closer as he moves. There is a window that overlooks a jetty. Water rushes by. The dancer is seated in profile at a table. The camera studies his arms and lowered head, as his fists beat on the surface of the table. He is upright, engaging with his weight in a kind of “see how it feels,” musing. This is when the living Misha enters the playhouse stage, in the same mood pictured above his head onscreen. Hip impulses lift his leg into low Tharp-y extensions, as an oboe solo fills the remaining space. Suddenly, the younger Misha is on the screen, dancing in the studio, focused, brilliant, still too young to understand and register in his facial expression, the implications of his monumental artistry. The video takes the younger members of the audience through the paces of how he came to be who he became and is today.

Very different choices could have been made here—to show clips of his performances, for example, but instead, the camera stays in the studio, focused on the formative, black and white moments that reveal Misha’s genius before it was marketed as the calling card of a defector. The living, breathing Misha stays in step with the screened younger version of himself, showing that yes, he still does it just that way, while letting go of the sixes, cabrioles, sissons, assemblés, multiple pirouettes, and saut de basques that are not on tonight’s program. The film is in “slow mo,” and the image of the dancer grows larger or smaller, but our living dancer is always the same size, as he recapitulates the footsteps of his visual inner child. The camera stays with the very youngest face of that ballet boy, and it occurs to me that in this shot, he is at the age when he lost his mother, so deeply bereft that he was unable to tell his Vaganova Institute classmates of her suicide, and instead said that she ran away, making something plausible out of something that wasn’t.

His onstage partner, the blonde Barton, might resemble his mother. She is certainly her partner's equal in size, heft and authority and has the theatrical advantage of exuding juiciness and slinkiness at the same time. Where his dancing at the top of the piece was impressive, now he is much stronger, warmer, more engaged, holding his relevés for all the counts, and even as he marks a modified barrel turn, we see his strength. His age is no obstacle when it comes to dominating or investigating the space around him.

“Come In,” by Barton is elegiac. The clock of Misha’s career has been ticking all through the evening’s program, but now a little metronome sounds a “toc, toc, toc,” at key intervals in the music by Vladimir Martynov, with violin solos by Gidon Kremer and Tatjana Gridenko in “Kremerata Baltica.” The dancers wear black and in the ritualism, there is more than a whiff of the funerary, as Baryshnikov, with one hand at his own throat, more than once mimes hanging himself. Of the three pieces, it is the least authentic, as screened images of a horse in a snow-dotted corral and other “winter of one’s life” symbols steer and annotate the work.

Misha at 58 is as present as a dancer as he was at 18, in all the ways that his careful curatorial honing of this company and its work would suggest. Certain tricks are no longer at his disposal; but on the other hand, certain perspectives are informing his artistic life for the very first time, and that is the polarity that pulls the audience into a new, intimate conversation with him. In “Hell’s Kitchen,” we find Misha, the Man-Child, unfettered by the artistic, personal, political, and commercial fetishes of dance commissars, East or West. Here, he securely and faithfully advances his own perspective on the very art form that has parented, prepared and celebrated him, a phenomenon he is consciously and graciously sharing with comrades on both sides of the proscenium.

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