Into the Mystic - An inspired Mikhail Baryshnikov and his White Oak Dance Project connect the secrets of ballet with the human experiencece.

By LEWIS SEGAL, L.A. Times Dance Critic


Mikhail Baryshnikov has long seemed the most ebullient of the great ballet defectors, so it's hard to suddenly think of him as a Russian mystic at the barre. But as his groundbreaking White Oak Dance Project has evolved, season by season over seven years, Baryshnikov has increasingly looked beyond music visualization and absorbing the range of modern dance expression toward the deepest, most daring frontiers of his art.

In his current, challenging three-part program at the Wiltern Theatre, Baryshnikov definitely takes upon himself the mystery of things and in particular the mystery of dancing--the secrets it holds, the belief that dancers are in touch with unseen forces.

Meg Stuart's brand-new "Remote," for the full, nine-member company, begins with ominous, almost subliminal instrumental whisperings by a string quartet and shattered, monochromatic slide images of city landscapes. However, Eleanor Hovda's score and Bruce Mau's designs only suggest the alarming tension and fragmentation in the choreography itself, which shows what can be seen as repetitive ballet exercises overpowered by inner drives that seize the dancers and drag them painfully away from classical composure.

At the center of the group, Baryshnikov is soon touching his brow, his neck, his wrist as if puzzled by the force within that pulls him so strongly and sets him staggering. Other soloists suffer parallel crises but their shared agony begins to break down their isolation and partnerships develop--very tentative, fleeting ones.

In the final moments, Baryshnikov stands quietly with his arm around Emmanuele Phuon, as Jamie Bishton executes grand-scale prophetic gestures and others move away into their own realities. It's scarcely a happy ending, but proves hopeful compared to Erick Hawkins' "Journey of a Poet," choreographed as a solo for Baryshnikov just before Hawkins' death in 1994 and subsequently reworked by associates into a group piece.

Set to a surging string quartet by Hawkins' longtime collaborator Lucia Dlugoszewski, the choreography initially carries you along with brief, sharply etched positional gambits: for example, the dancers running backward while bent over, their hands trailing along the floor. Jumps (one leg held high in the air), long-held balances and other displays of dancer prowess are very much the central issue here--until Hawkins' startling conclusion.

In contrast to the growing sense of human interaction in "Remote," here Baryshnikov crawls painfully away from the ensemble toward something he sees but cannot reach. It's like his magnificent final moments on the floor in Balanchine's "Prodigal Son," but with no loving father waiting to raise him up in welcoming arms.

A performer into his '70s, Hawkins knew from experience that a dancer's quest continues past the erosion of his physical powers--but to make the greatest virtuoso of our era embody that vision is somehow terribly disturbing. We know that Baryshnikov is 49. We know what that means for a dancer. But we need him to keep beating the odds. Confronting the inevitable can wait.

Maybe that's why the third piece on the program, a scrupulous revival of Merce Cunningham's "Septet," felt like such a miracle. It took us back to 1953, when Cunningham created a disarmingly whimsical neo-balletic divertissement to music by Satie--one of his last conventionally constructed pieces before he turned to chance procedures.

It also took Baryshnikov back to his breezy Misha-of-the-Kirov identity. Dancing Cunningham's own role, he suddenly looked lighter, younger, blonder. If Stuart and Hawkins represented reality, this was pure dream, and even the aura of mystery enveloping the three women (alternately graces, goddesses, muses) proved benign and comfortably neo-balletic as well.

As usual, White Oak boasted a fine instrumental ensemble: David J. Bursack, Margaret Dugdale, Ron Oakland, Nicolas Reveles and Wendy Sutter. Besides those previously mentioned, the exemplary dancers included Raquel Aedo, Sarah Perron, David Porter, Ruthlyn Salomons, Vernon Scott and Greg Zuccolo.

The White Oak Dance Project repeats this program (Actually, the program order was changed so latecomers would not have to wait as long for the second piece to begin.B.W.) tonight at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 2 at the Wiltern Theatre, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., Tickets: $15-$75. (310) 825-2101.

Copyright L.A. Times


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