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White Oak Dance Project
who flock to performances of the White Oak Dance Project in hopes of seeing Mikhail
Baryshnikov wont be disappointed. Or will they?
The almost legendary dancer
is very much in evidence with the dance group he created ten years ago with choreographer
Mark Morris. He appears in just about every piece. But, is it dance?
See Misha sit on a chair.
See him walk around and around in circles, take off his clothes and put them back on
again. Or, dressed in coveralls, drag a variety of items onto the stage, pretending to be
a window dresser, while half the citizens of Berkeley parade slowly past. There he is
again, with a projector strapped on his back, sending pictures of himself up onto a
screen. See Baryshnikov as a member of the ensemble where, if you dont look quick,
you may not see Baryshnikov at all.
Actually, its all
pretty interesting. When its not totally boring.
White Oak is dedicated to
exploring the boundaries of modern dance. Those expecting Don Quixote or the
Corsair Variations" should be warned. The current tour of the gifted
seven-person ensemble is particularly quirky, focusing as it does on work done in the 60s
and 70s by choreographers of the Judson School, Simone Forti, Lucinda Childs, Steve
Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, David Gordon and Trisha Brown.
Caught up in the avant-garde
of the period, these people made dances that pushed the envelope of modernism. Rock music,
silence, minimalist movement and everyday activity were put on stage and, if people liked
it, fine. If not, OK too.
The White Oak program, which
consists of numerous (13 on the night of which we speak) short pieces, is a kind of
retrospective of the Judson School. Titled PAST Forward, it focuses on the early work,
interpolating several pieces done by the same choreographers in recent years. A videotape
of interviews with the Judson School dance-makers and clips of their early work gives the
context. Costuming, except in two or three dances, is non-existent, the dancers working in
street or rehearsal clothes. The stage is bare, the lighting equipment highly visible.
Often, film projections of the dancers movements, projected on a screen, mirror what
is happening on the stage; a device that, while effective, is somewhat over-used.
Gordon is fascinated by chairs, as is Rainer and, after seeing their
work, one will never regard the lowly folding chair in quite the same way. Actually, the
dancing started off with a bang as Baryshnikov danced with a chair a la Fred Astaire in a
witty Gordon solo set to Sousas Stars and Stripes Forever. The high
didnt last long because it was followed by a 1975 Gordon chair piece for two women
that truly did seem to go on forever. Academically interesting but anti-climactic.
Paxton likes walking. His contributions, Flat the
Baryshnikov strip tease mentioned earlier and the strangely-named Satisfyin
Lover, a parade of more than 30 Berkeley residents moving slowly across the stage,
highlight pedestrian movement in a non-pedestrian way.
Walking, too, is the essence of Deborah Hays 1995
Exit, a strangely moving piece, set to Barber's Molto Adagio (from
the string quartet; the later "Adagio for Strings" was based on this piece),
evoking a journey from darkness into light, death to eternity, the unknown to safety,
simply with a large number of people walking slowly across the stage, sometimes turning,
sometimes stopping, occasionally raising a hand. Beautifully done, it had a strong impact.
Other highlights included an excerpt from Browns1990 Foray
Foret, a trio with real dancing and real costumes, and Childs 1993
Concerto, in which the ensemble works as a kind of perpetual motion machine.
Concerto, wisely chosen to close the program, left the audience with a real
high. And, if you paid attention, you could see Mikhail Baryshnikov, whirling by in the
center of the group.
Youve got to give the man credit. At 52 he still has his edge,
plus the courage to explore new frontiers. He is too much of a dancer forever to be
pigeonholed as a danseur. The work he is doing
now in resurrecting the esoteric, groundbreaking dances of the 60s and 70s is archival and
important. No less important is the creation and presentation of new work by
choreographers of today. As great as he was in the ballet, his work with the White Oak
Project could turn out to be a major part of the Baryshnikov legacy.
Berkeley, CA, November 1, 2000
- Suzanne Weiss