Neumann gives us both the wily con man and the hapless everyman in two solos he created a decade apart. In Dose (1996), his rapid-fire gestures alight on the words of the shyster spiel that Tom Waits is emitting, while his feet skid and twist on a floor that seems as slippery as he is. This is a dance in which a pelvic bump comes across as an aside, not worth emphasizing in the rigmarole of snake oil this guy is giving out (“one size fits all,” “gets you an erection,” “wins the election. . .”). It’s as virtuosic an act as his sudden, unrepeated b-boy vault–tumble-spin.

In the more deeply layered Tough the Tough (redux) (2006, 2010), he enters with a chair to a fanfare of lighting effects by Chloe Brown, vaults over it and collapses. While Will Eno’s text is being spoken noncommittally on tape by DJ Mendel, Neumann looks around nervously. The voice speaks of calamities and struggles besetting “mankind,” before pronouncing, “Mankind is standing around.” Which is true. There he is in a dark suit and sneakers. Standing. Around. “It all comes down to this.” The voice tell us that the man’s name is Steve, and as “Steve,” Neumann hoofs it, mind and body on a tear, finding the floor to be a tightrope, while some oom-pah-pah music gets stuck in a groove. This man going about his business shows us the far-out eccentric side of normalcy. Laden with folding chairs, he crashes about. “Aren’t we something!” purrs the omniscient voice.

Paxton’s new solo is the darkest thing on the program—mesmerizing, terrifying. An innovator in the iconoclastic Judson Dance Theater during the 1960s, the progenitor of contact improvisation in the 1970s, he has always pursued ideas as if he wants to absorb them into his tissues. For years, in all his public appearances, he improvised to two recordings of Glenn Gould playing J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations for as long as it took.

Mikhail Baryshnikov in Alexei Ratmansky's ³Valse-Fantasie²
Julieta Cervantes
Mikhail Baryshnikov in Alexei Ratmansky's ³Valse-Fantasie²

Details

“Unrelated Solos”
Jerome Robbins Theater, Baryshnikov Arts Center
May 19 through 22

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Paxton is around 70 now, lean and fit, but in Christine Shallenberg’s uncompromising lighting, he looks like the survivor of a hard life—haggard, grim-faced, stiff. He moves in increments, checking out this joint, this stance, this sound he has perhaps heard. The solo is called The Beast, and you can take that however you wish. He is a tired, slowed-down caged animal. There’s a beast inside him, trying to gnaw through his skin. Maybe.

He stays for a long time in the center of a spotlight before he tests its perimeter. You wonder what’s going through his mind that impels (or goes along with) the incremental eruptions and subsidings in a particular joint. Just when you think he can’t bend his spine, he arches softly back and stares up at the light. When he leans over, arms hanging, and looks at the floor for a while, is he trying to decipher his shadow? Sometimes he stands pigeon-toed and knock-kneed, settling into that stance. Intermittently, we hear quiet, slowly dripping water or distant thumps. Somewhere behind me, someone sighs, but the audience seems transfixed. You want him to stop; you want him to keep going. When Paxton is done, the circle of light has compressed to an oval; he walks off into the darkness.

Later, at home, I do my best to move like the man I know as Steve and begin to feel as if my body’s myriad cells are struggling to transmit messages to one another. I try to listen. It’s scary. I find it hard to stop. I stop.

From the moment Baryshnikov arrived in America, haloed by his uncanny physical skills, he has made interesting, challenging, sometimes risky artistic choices: commissioning a work for American Ballet Theater (when he was its artistic director) by the profoundly unballetic 1960s radical David Gordon; sharing some appearances with postmodern choreographer Dana Reitz or the great Japanese onnagata performer Tamasaburo; devising a program, Past Forward, that resurrected works by Judson Dance Theater; performing in a piece that the young vanguardist Meg Stuart made for his pick-up company, White Oak. And more.

Putting himself on a program with Paxton and Neumann—two men with histories very different from his own, he again plays host to tradition and innovation, doing his bit both to entertain us and to charge up our brains.

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