Polishing Up History


Who could have imagined that Mikhail Baryshnikov would become the archivist of modern dance, as well as a sponsor of new, cutting-edge choreography? His White Oak Dance Project is embarking on a plan to mount important postmodern works of the radical ’60s and ’70s, and to commission new ones from members of Judson Dance Theater.

You cannot exactly re-create on an opera house stage those funky days when everything about dance was up for grabs; and what once was shocking has shaped the postmodern scene. Still, another kind of innovation operates when a ballet icon stands before you with a 16mm film projector strapped to his back. When he twists, say, to inspect an arm, his own more neutral image slides around the backdrop, sometimes in sync with him, sometimes not. When Trisha Brown performed this solo, Homemade, in 1965, the projection was black-and-white; Babette Mangolte’s new film (with medium close-ups and changes of camera angle) is in color. And the piece has been customized for its performer (not ballet steps, more like “Wake up, glutes!”).

Baryshnikov persuaded Yvonne Rainer, who gave up choreography for filmmaking over 25 years ago, to create a new piece for White Oak. And lo, a ’60s tradition-wrecker delights the audience. In After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, Rainer’s anthology of clips from earlier works, dancers standing around looking at each other, as if querying what to do next, becomes an event. History has broadened our horizons. To watch White Oakers walk and run and dodge and advance, wobbly-kneed, in a herd doesn’t elicit “Is this dance?” uneasiness; we like it for what it is.

The piece foregrounds smart strategies, such as juxtaposing seemingly unrelated texts that spark chance connections (Michael Lomeka recounts a caterpillar’s arduous transformation while executing a sequence of forthright and strenuous moves). Simple tasks require unsuitably arduous approaches. Although Rainer championed the everyday body, her powerful and witty structures belie ordinariness. While Rosalynde LeBlanc tackles a mattress, Emily Coates and Raquel Aedo perform an excerpt from Rainer’s 1964 Dialogues in which, over and over, they squat; lie on their sides, one atop the other; roll and plop; rise—all the while carrying on, in high voices, a terrifically funny Gertrude Stein-ish conversation about changing, growing, and being lovely.

If Rainer has created a revisionist landmark anthology as well as a new piece, Trisha Brown’s beautiful 1979 quartet, Glacial Decoy, is itself a landmark in her career: her first use of fancy costumes and a backdrop (slides of Robert Rauschenberg’s black-and-white Florida photographs, parading in fours from left to right). The illusion is a dance too wide for the stage. When LeBlanc appears stage right in silence, Emmanuèle Phuon disappears stage left. Their silky, scalloping moves and the billow of their bell-shaped white pleated dresses (also by Rauschenberg) give them the allure of apparitions. After Coates and Aedo show us the missing middle, all four women pull what we imagine to be a 60-foot band of delectable dancing back and forth within a 40-foot frame.

See Through Knot is fodder for tomorrow’s history, but John Jasperse’s formal precision allies him with the ’70s vanguard. His opening duet for Aedo and Phuon is a marvel of arms and legs and angling torsos flashing around each other in tight proximity. The women at times resemble a strange new form of life. When Coates arrives, they soften, and the three ooze around, resting their chins, like nuzzling horses, on crannies and ledges formed by one another’s bodies. Jasperse almost runs some stunning counterpoint for five into the ground, but pulls back in time to keep us riveted.

Baryshnikov is just one of the gang in Jasperse’s work. Mark Morris’s solo Peccadillos wisely and lovingly works the great dancer’s star quality and ballet heritage. It’s a charming suite, beginning with pianist Ethan Iverson cramming his legs under an electrified toy piano, and Baryshnikov marching to Satie’s “enfantin” pieces like a toy soldier. Although he blowskisses, hugs himself, and wipes sweat from his brow with a stiff hand, the dance is sweet rather than cute, with a tough edge and an inventive touch. Baryshnikov brings out all its subtleties, its poignancy, its underlying seriousness.

Offering radicalism as if sure that audiences will like it—what a brave concept White Oak has sprouted!

If dance had a middle name, it would be “Ineffable.” Choreography expresses feelings and forces we can’t always name. That alluring ineffability also licenses choreographers to create works even they don’t understand. Audiences have learned to be wary of saying, “I don’t get it.”

Since Kevin O’Day left Twyla Tharp’s company, he’s been freelancing all over the place. Most of his ballets are unstrained, fluent, a little bit bold, easy to like. I like Swerve Poems, his contribution to the New York City Ballet’s Diamond Project. But nothing in the choreography clarifies why two dark walls, one at either side of the stage, rise slowly at various times and drop at the end. We gasp and giggle the first time Tom Gold—looking particularly juicy and relaxed—slides backward under a low, wide, light-filled opening at the rear and disappears. But what does disappearing mean here? And what is the import of two couples dancing half in, half out of what we now see is a trapdoor in the floor?

Is it supposed to signify anything that Carole Divet has dressed Stacey Calvert, Albert Evans, Abi Stafford, and Arch Higgins in white miniskirts while Gold and Craig Hall wear shorts, and Philip Neal and James Fayette trousers? No, I don’t think we have a gender statement here. Like its title, the ballet veers off in whatever new direction seems promising. John King’s excellent commissioned score for violin, viola, cello, and bass clarinets accompanies Swerve Poems with its own devious, undercover journey away from its jazz influences.

O’Day is smart with group designs. He sets off Gold’s opening stroll onto the stage against the skirted foursome’s quiet upstage clump (elegantly lit by Mark Stanley), divides the six men into threepart counterpoint, and brings dancers running on in a line, holding hands as if contemplating crack-the-whip. He makes a jumping, turning line of women divide, leaving stragglers Carrie Lee Riggins and Pauline Golbin (wonderful in this) to flick their legs in some spicy gargouillades. The episodes he concocts show off the dancers admirably; Higgins gets an especially nifty solo. And Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal leap and leap in a driving last moment.

O’Day, it seems to me, doesn’t cherish his own inventions enough. He’s wary of letting us look at one movement or phrase too long or too many times. Whelan braces herself by putting her hand on Neal’s forehead; little else in their duet subverts classical partnering quite so arrestingly. Fayette crawls in with the vivid Jenny Somogyi standing on his back; I could have watched them investigate this principle for a while. Their duet might become more ineffable, but incite fewer why?s.

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