White Oak Dance Company


by Lewis Whittington

May, 2001-- Merriam Theater, Philadelphia, PA

The legendary Judson Theater, housed in the basement of a church in New York in the mid-sixties, provided the lab for experimental choreographers such as Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Simone Forti, David Gordon, Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton and Yvonne Rainer: deconstructionists all and all tuned into the sociological upheaval of American culture at that time.

Mikhail Baryshnikov's White Oak Dance Project has restaged this work for modern audiences in a multi-media presentation using mummified reconstructions by his dancers and archival footage from the original performances. An achievement in itself, certainly, but groundbreaking work from the 60s dance stages can look like breaking something else for modern audiences.

Without doubt, this eclectic group, along with the choreographic mavericks like Merce Cunningham and Twyla Tharp and others, defined a new liberated landscape. Cunningham particularly, exploited the popular cultural phenomenon of "a happening," relying on spontaneity, improvisation and natural stage persona to craft dance "events," as he called them. Though Cunningham, unlike Baryshnikov, recognized that even seminal works had to be adapted with a sense of fun.

Obviously, White Oak finds this important work that would, without them, be forgotten. As lofty as it is to restore forgotten works many things in PASTForward simply should be redrafted. There is nothing wrong with the concept of reinterpretation and the subtitle of PASTForward played in concert as the wonderful world of inaccessible dance.

Restoration dance can benefit from interpretation of modern artists as much as Restoration Theater. Too much reverence subverts the spirit of the work and comes off as cynical. Indeed, White Oak relentlessly pursues authenticity in recreating these dances, but may be off the mark expecting the audience to pretend that this work isn't stylized 35 years after it was created.

Now here is the forensic evidence. The show kicks off before the audience is seated with the 16 or so dancers brushing by each other and forming circles and lines. Then a screen descends and we receive a pretty fascinating lecture, narrated by Baryshnikov and the participating choreographers, on the dances at the Judson. The film footage itself by Charles Atlas is often captivating, especially when it leads directly into the live dancing.

So far so good, but, this lofty approach is really just an excuse to showcase Baryshnikov. Forget Judson's revolution, Baryshinikov is a star and people came here to see him dance and no matter what he is doing, the audience views him as a god. At 54 he can still flash his technical prowess, vaulting into a handstand off of the back of a folding chair, for instance, and tossing off clean execution in turns and jumps. He can be stoically droll in Steve Paxton's "Flat" where he walks in a circle, freezing intermittently as he undresses and pasting his clothes to his skin. I was reminded of Gypsy Rose Lee's mother telling the stripper, "Leave 'em begging for more, then don't give it to 'em."

By contrast, in Lucinda Childs "Concerto," Baryshnikov and his group are almost commanding in a classically simplistic work. But even as the dancer was the dance once again, I couldn't help but notice his bored eyes and that suppressed sneer.

A nice work without him was duet with spoken narrative, breezily danced by Michael Lomeka and Rosalynde LeBlanc, about how a caterpillar molts into a butterfly.

But for the most part, Baryshnikov he seems to save the best stuff for himself. His troupe of seven talented dancers seems committed to making the most out of what they do. But, for their parts, there is no room for levity here, however weak.

A row of patrons walked out in the middle of Lucinda Childs 1964 work "Carnation," a study of female alienation in which the seated dancer crowns herself with a vegetable steamer and methodically stuffs her mouth with sponges and curlers. Personally I liked that one.

Yvonne Rainer's "Chair/Pillow" set to Tina Turner's "River Deep, Mountain High." Placed in its time you could imagine its effectiveness, but the repetition of people repositioning a pillow is by now is more than bland. And there is no doubt in my mind now where that blank dancer gaze was developed. You know -- where the eyes seem to be either in the presence of a deity or the largest genitals in the word.

PASTForward is more of a dance symposium designed for dancers, choreographers and aestheticians. In theater it would be like Lee Strasberg staging one of his acting classes rather than incorporating the exercises into a real play. Baryshnikov's has no doubt the purist motives. After all, he is no less curating artifactual dance text that would otherwise be lost to the questionable memories of veterans of the 60s New York vanguard.

Toward the end, Baryshnikov comes on to construct an instance sculpture out of stage props and people stream by in front of him and their heads are projected in the background. It creates a hypnotic image of the musings of a great, if jaded artist, who has done it all and tells us he must experiment.

The finale had White Oak and the community members onstage again for bows. A previously shy young man of about three broke out into a joyous kid-dance to Beatles music. The filing-out audience stopped and cheered this dancing cherub who obviously is destined for a great career. Take a lesson, White Oak; free style dance is the province of the freely dancing spirit.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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