Dancers as Actors

A onetime ballet star falls into Beckettland

A figure hurtles backward onto the sand-covered stage, as if a giant fist of fate has socked him in the gut. He staggers up and brushes himself off. As the sole protagonist of Samuel Beckett's Act Without Words I, the great dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov embodies a hapless Everyman and has shaped his body and movements accordingly. Trudging toward objects that descend from above at the sound of a whistle, he leans doggedly forward, even when the whistle-blower's capriciousness becomes apparent. His elegant timing and the sag or slight lift of his chest tell us when he's resigned or when a good idea has penetrated his worn-down brain (like putting a smaller cube on top of a larger one, instead of vice-versa, to reach a dangling pitcher of water).

His expressions also reveal a lot. Dancers in Western cultures don't use their faces much, but in all four Beckett plays, directed by JoAnne Akalaitis (see Michael Feingold's review in this week's Theater section), Baryshnikov makes his visage a highly mobile adjunct to his body—not just to respond to the situation at hand, but to create a character far from the princely image he once presented onstage. Squinting, thrusting out his jaw, letting his mouth go slack in Act Without Words II (a distant relative of Waiting for Godot), his "A" is a grumpy, slovenly man—the antithesis of David Neumann's "B." As the two progress along a strip of sand, each alternately going through his shorthand "day" before crawling into his sack to sleep, Neumann emerges as a tidy fellow who consults his watch with mechanical precision every few seconds and at bedtime neatly stacks the pants, coat, and shoes he shares with "A." His face is as noncommittal as Baryshnikov's is changeable; he looks like a rabbit caught in headlights. But Neumann, a dancer- choreographer, also builds a character with extraordinary deftness and clarity, even providing the evening's only moment of virtuosity (he tosses his toothbrush into the air and catches it in his breast pocket).

Dancer-actors are uncommon, except in Broadway musicals. Still, it's a misperception that all dancers have small, chirpy, toneless voices. In a postmodern climate that encourages the mingling of disciplines, many performers have proved that wrong. I think back to David Rousséve's dry, heartrending personal narrative in his The Whispers of Angels and Mark Dendy's touching and hilarious portrayal of Amanda Wingfield in Jane Comfort's Faith Healing, a take on Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie, or Baryshnikov himself in the film White Nights.

A hapless (but famous) Everyman: Mikhail Baryshnikov in Beckett Shorts
Joan Marcus
A hapless (but famous) Everyman: Mikhail Baryshnikov in Beckett Shorts

Choreographer-dancer-writer Gus Solomons jr, who's playing Shakespeare's Othello in a production at the Bank Street Theater from January 9 through 20, says that his years of dancing not only help him with "how to stand, when to move, when not to move, those kinds of things," but also aid memorization. "The only way I can really learn the words is to say them out loud over and over so my mouth muscles do them. If I try to think what comes next, my brain doesn't work that fast."

In Beckett's bleak Rough for Theatre I, Baryshnikov's speech and movements merge in a perhaps-related kinesthetic process. Here he's a blind beggar, jousting verbally with actor Bill Camp. Camp, trapped in a wheelchair, adopts the orotund tones of a has-been Shakespearean actor, while Baryshnikov's higher, tighter, Russian-inflected voice seems powered by his gestures—by the way he hunches his body around his derelict violin, juts his head forward to listen, or throws his arms wide in mad glee. And although he sits perfectly still in Eh Joe, while Karen Kandel condemns him in a coruscating diatribe, and his face, projected in close-up onto the front scrim, moves only minimally, he makes you see the terrible dance going on in his head.

 
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