The curtain rises on a mostly dark stage. Two women, their backs to the audience, travel along an avenue of light with tiny sidesteps, swinging their hips. They applaud silently and so genteelly that their outstretched clapping hands look like little fish mouths opening and closing. We can just make out a man standing in the shadows; he instantly compels our attention.
This year Bard College’s Summerscape festival focuses on “Franz Liszt and His World,” and it seems entirely fitting that one of choreographer Donna Uchizono’s two premieres on the opening program should feature a latter-day virtuoso in the field of dance, guest artist Mikhail Baryshnikov. That a dancer’s body isn’t as durable as a pianist’s fingers should surprise no one; in Uchizono’s Leap to Tall, Baryshnikov doesn’t jump extraordinarily high or spin like a top, but his artistry renders every movement mesmerizingly clear. The deep lunge he slides into is like the platonic ideal of that gesture. He ripples a hand, and it’s an event.
Uchizono’s choreography covertly alludes to a variety of facts about Baryshnikov’s life and career. The excellent commissioned score (heard on tape) by Michael Floyd and composer-vocalist Iva Bittová incorporates what could be Slavic folk song, as well as hammering, drilling, and sawing noises that refer to one of the great dancer’s most recent projects, the Baryshnikov Arts Center in Manhattan. Baryshnikov sometimes dances as if making plans, his hands patting precise assertions on the air, his head shaking firmly.
The two younger women fleetingly represent fans, but, more importantly, Hristoula Harakas and Jodi Melnick are two marvels in the world of postmodern dance with which the ballet star has aligned himself. Like Liszt, Baryshnikov offers support and the power of his attention to young artists he admires, and Uchizono’s choreography reflects this, along with the fact that a dancer who’s had as much knee surgery as Baryshnikov could occasionally use a little support himself (one or the other of women occasionally gives him a casual lift.) There’s even a small joke: Melnick blows on him, gives him a little push, and he falls backward into Harakas’s arms.
The three dance together sensitively—spooling around one another, changing partners, working in counterpoint. In this rich little world, each is given equal time. Harakas handles her plushy flexibility and soft strength so casually that when she tosses one leg into the air, you’re almost shocked that it hits a perfect position. Melnick is one of those rare dancers who winds others’ choreography through her own sensibility so completely that she appears to be thinking it up as she goes—alert to everything happening around her. And Baryshnikov redefines virtuosity as the power to give the smallest detail his full and luminous attention.
The rest of the program acknowledges Liszt directly. In case anyone had forgotten that he often wrote to challenge his own virtuosic fingers, the brilliant German pianist Marcus Groh opens the evening by thundering into the composer’s Totentanz, Paraphrase on the “Dies Irae”. Groh also plays very beautifully onstage during Uchizono’s Summerscape commission, Moving Liszt, in which both composer and pianist are literally moved—by three elegantly coordinated black-clad stagehands who push the piano on a wheeled platform to various positions. The device not only alters the space in interesting ways, it keeps Groh in focus as a distanced collaborator and not simply an accompanist. Uchizono only occasionally imitates Liszt’s rhythms and phrase shapes closely; more often she either runs with or counters the feelings and moods of pieces drawn from two suites titled Années de Pélerinage (inspired by his travels in Switzerland,1836-54, and Italy, 1838-49). The result is mysterious and oddly affecting.
Naomi has dressed the four dancers (Levi Gonzalez, Harakas, Kayvon Pourazar, and Rebecca Serrell) in shades of gray and a brilliant blue that echoes that of the peacock feathers they grip between their teeth and drag along, deck themselves with, and use to scribble on the floor as if in the throes of lighting-quick composition. During the first few minutes, the four move heavily or not at all. Serrell goes to sleep in a corner. Pourazar lies sideways athwart Gonzalez, who’s lying on his side, and for a long time the only things moving beside Groh’s fingers are Gonzalez’s legs walking several inches off the floor. It’s as if they’re all taking their time waking up to Liszt (Robert Wierzel’s lucid lighting adds enormously to the theatrical effect).
Uchizono has a gift for the unexpected, for clumsiness blossoming into a beauty that has nothing to do with picture-pretty moves; she makes us see things in a new light, as if she’s tipped an image on its side, and it suddenly edges into gorgeousness. Sometimes the fine performers dance big—covering space, stretching their limbs. Sometimes they’re tender with one another, like ballroom couples enjoying an evening together. The choreography, dynamically and rhythmically full of contrast on its own, weaves seductively in and out of Liszt’s patterns. Occasional gestures allude to pianism. Pouarazar lets his hands droop at the wrist above an imaginary keyboard. Serrell wriggles her fingers rapidly and moves her head, perhaps writing on air with her nose.
Uchizono’s ideas, however, are rarely literal in terms of a narrative. Who knows what Lisztian tales inspired her to have dozens of apples tumble onto the stage, to be gathered up by the dancers and rolled away? Serrell makes a deliciously funny exit close to the wings, trying to finish devouring an apple exactly as Groh ends the music.
Bard’s choice of Uchizono to provide a dance component to its music festival turned out to be sensitive as well as bold. Her interpretation of Liszt’s music is in its quiet way as daring as the Fisher Center, Frank Gehry’s grand architectural take on the 19th-century concert hall.