Presented by Baryshnikov Productions
in association with
The Japanese American Cultural & Community Center and
UCLA Center for the Performing Arts
Wiltern Theatre, Los Angeles, 3/6-9/97
$15 - $75
WHITE OAK DANCE PROJECT
Merce Cunningham -- Erick Hawkins -- Meg Stuart
Raquel Aedo - Mikhail Baryshnikov - Jamie Bishton
Sarah Perron - Emmanuèle Phuon - David Porter
Ruthlyn Salomons - Vernon Scott - Greg Zuccolo
The overused phrase "Living Legend," can be legitimately bestowed on precious few mortals; one of them is Mikhail Baryshnikov. He is the ultimate dance god, charisma personified. At age 49, he may no longer soar above the boards at oxygen depleted altitudes, but his many remaining attributes make any concert appearance an Event.
Continuing his seven-year collaboration with the finest currently available dancers and a variety of choreographers; the White Oak Dance Project recently arrived for four performances at the venerable art deco Wiltern Theatre.
Expectations can be both a pleasure and a curse. While waiting with enthusiastic anticipation for Saturday night to arrive, we are buoyed by Elizabeth Zimmer's interview with Misha and Lewis Segal's ecstatic concert review in the L.A. Times. Simultaneously however, the local dance gossip network begins to broadcast first and second-hand reports that ranged from "disappointing" to a "What was he thinking?!" bewilderment.
Now having been there, seen it, I can understand the extravagantly extreme reactions on the loved it-hated it continuum. How one reacted to this three piece concert was supremely dependent upon one's prior appreciation of modern dance, it's history and technique--and tolerance for abstract, minimalist movement accompanied by a variety of irritating sounds.
There was certainly no shortage of intermission and post-concert reactions. The dance aficionados did appear to enjoy much of the work; yet questioned Baryshnikov's motives in choosing this material. The debate raged: Is it that he loves these pieces so much; or, is it at this point, what he's physically comfortable performing? Others were dismayed that onstage were some of the finest dancers in the world and they were not given the chance to let loose and really dance.
Choreography: Merce Cunningham (1953)
Music: Erik Satie
Trois Morceaus en forme de poire (piano for 4-Hands)
The evening began with this wonderful recreation, performed with occasional silent passages, using only the skillful lighting of David Finn, to paint the stage. After a brief opening section by a graceful trio of women, Baryshnikov (wearing purple tights and a black top) enters with a running flourish and is greeted by a welcoming round of applause. He is handsome, as always, and looks reassuringly fit.
This is a charming piece contrasting classic balletic forms with stiff armed shapes reminiscent of a frieze on a Grecian urn. There are duets and more trios. There are delicate expressive movements and abstract poses that make shapes for their own sake. There is a warmth and generosity between the characters that is rarely present in later Cunningham works.
Throughout this piece, Baryshnikov's lighthearted expressions and gestures convey a sense of great pleasure in his performance that is contagious beyond the footlights.
JOURNEY OF A POET
Erick Hawkins (1994)
Music: Lucia Dlugoszewski
Shortly before his death, Hawkins created this as a solo for Baryshnikov, who had it re-staged for the nine members of White Oak. Hawkins had a distinguished sixty-year career, including extensive work with Martha Graham. This piece takes us back to the roots of modern dance. The dancers wear old-fashioned boy-cut black leotards with chalky slashes for accents (designed by Dean Nichols & J. Kevin Draves) which create an anachronistic atmosphere.
The music, by Hawkins' wife Lucia, modestly titled "Disparate Stairway Radical Other Quartet" was by turns propulsive, frenetic, and whistle-like; there were screeching violins, a suggestion of swarming bees, and all too brief moments of silence.
The kaleidoscope of movement and freezes included a primal stretching and oozing exit into the wings (prompting one wit to re-title it "Journey of an Amoeba"), graceful floor rolling, jerky gear/ratchet moves, one-legged sway backed poses, and rear facing en rélèvé with arms extended at a 45° angle. An oft-repeated motif had a statue-like Mr. B. with one hand held straight over head and the other covering the eyes.
Baryshnikov showed his athletic prowess by executing what looked like stylized simulations of gymnastic pommel horse routines, cross-country skiing, and synchronized swimming gestures.
Towards the end, this sojourn of multiple moods takes a decidedly downbeat turn. The final disturbing image is of an isolated Baryshnikov, crippled and yearning, dragging his leaden body to the wings.
Obviously, this was discouraging to all the aspiring poets in the audience.
REMOTE Meg Stuart (1997)
Music: Eleanor Hovda
The final and, to me, the least successful dance is Meg Stuart's Gen-X deconstructionist, disturbing exploration of urban angst and the pervasive effect it has on sensitive individuals and their interpersonal relationships. Like that sentence, this arty offering treads a shaky tightrope between pretentiousness and parody. It comes equipped with eloquent Cliff Notes from its dramaturge André Lepecki:
Whew! Well, I liked quite a bit of this dance, but also see how it infuriated some members of the audience. It begins in silence, with massive black & white projections of stark, forbidding cityscapes created by Bruce Mau. Michael Hull did the remarkably effective, both subtle and dramatic, lighting design. The droll opening section has the entire company working on a variety of turns in a surreal, asylum-like, ballet class. From first position, they slowly make half turns, then jerk back. After many repetitions, this evolves into preparation to turn in fourth position, with complete slow-motion spotted turns. As a humorous in-joke they also demonstrate the use of the rotating index finger as the universal symbol for a turn.
- An open book lies in the studio and the lines of a
poem hover during rehearsal.
- At the still point of the turning world...there the dance is...,writes T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets. Next to the open book, the dance turns around itself, quietly, gently, sensing its way through gestures too many times repeated, too many times inhabited without recognition. It is a dance moving around the limits of dancing. Reversing time, cutting time, expanding it to its annihilation. A dance of flesh, of sound, of geometrical possibilities. A dance of images. Neither movement from, nor towards,/Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,/ There would be no dance...continues the poem. The still point is that of Presence. The inescapable presence of the dancer on stage. It is always there, this presence, securing the pulsing of time, turning, revolving, promising revolution. Here we depart from the poem. For if the dancer's presence seems still, it is illusion.
This unison movement soon disintegrates into individual wrestling with internal demons. There are spastic twitches and quirks followed by freezes, shoulder hunches, touching of one's own body in puzzlement, loose-arm swings, and ironic laughing. This tormented tableau is underscored by some of the most annoying sounds to ever emanate from cello, viola and Stradivari. The music (in the loosest definition of the word) was performed skillfully by the live string quartet. This collection of industrial noises, high tension power line hums, and frantic screeches does provide a fitting atmosphere for the on-stage emoting. Mercifully, much of it is played at barely audible levels...that, however, served to amplify the squirmy audience's squeaky seats, murmurs and coughs; and the departures of the few patrons with the temerity to walk out on a Baryshnikov performance.
As the piece lurches towards its conclusion, the walking wounded reach out in desperate attempts to form relationships. Their expressive longings, failures, along with drunken escapes from reality take their inevitable toll: Many bodies fall and remain motionless, one crazed soul continues to rage against the world, and a lone couple clings to each other for support.
As the curtain descended on this final image the audience offered only tepid applause. However, as Misha & Company reappeared to take their bows this polite response exploded into a heartfelt ovation for the evening as a whole; in tribute for the totality of his magnificent career; and enthusiastic encouragement for its continuing evolution.
© 1996 by B. L. Weiss
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