Reviewing Merce Cunningham’s 1945 solo concert, the critic Edwin Denby expanded on the form itself: “A man alone can suggest he is looking for something invisible, that he’s trying out a trick, that he is having a bad time, or that he is just fooling.” Had he lived to see the solos performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov, Steve Paxton, and David Neumann on a program in the Baryshnikov Center’s new Jerome Robbins Theater, he might have been tickled to see his assessment still valid in a variety of ways.
The three commissioned works for Baryshnikov by Benjamin Millepied, Alexei Ratmansky, and Susan Marshall didn’t involve “just fooling,” but rather some engaging fooling around—if fooling around is taken to mean remembering, trying out steps, making small jokes, and pausing to think.
All three choreographers acknowledge Baryshnikov’s history as the greatest male dancer of his time. Now he’s in his early sixties; when he does a light, thrown-away little spring into the air, we remember that soaring leap of his. He has always been beautifully precise in all he does, and the ease he has developed over the years from his association with such postmodern choreographers as Twyla Tharp softens that exactitude without undercutting it.
Baryshnikov, however, has always been not just a virtuoso but a profoundly intelligent performer, and in all three of these new solos, he projects a wry, jaunty, slightly self-deprecating persona. In the latest version of Millepied’s Years later, he noodles around to several of Philip Glass’s Melodies for Saxophones and Akira Rabelais’s Première Gnossienne—trying this gesture or that, this step or that. Suddenly, he acquires a double, whose projected, life-sized image saunters onto the scrim at the back. Baryshnikov is very aware of this prone-to-disappearing guy (filmed by Asa Mader for the piece’s 2006 premiere). They perform in unison, copy each other, seem to converse in movement.
But there’s another onscreen image that’s not so easy to dance with—Baryshnikov’s 1968 self in a ballet class, when he was a rising soloist in St. Petersburg’s Kirov Ballet. The boy is not yet fine-tuned, but already brilliant. The older flesh-and-blood dancer can duplicate his impeccably turned-out pliés, his flicks of a foot, and his elegant port de bras, but he echoes the huge jumps with small, well-placed ones. There are jokes, such as filmed pirouettes that won’t quit. At one point, young Misha’s leg, flashing out in close-up, seems to knock his older double off balance. However, for a few seconds, when the filmed image is small, Jennifer Tipton’s expert lighting throws the live dancer’s very large shadow on the backcloth. Baryshnikov, his legs wide apart, seems to bestride his 20-year-old self like the colossus he became.
Alexei Ratmansky was born in St. Petersburg but trained in Moscow at the school of the Bolshoi Ballet (which company he directed from 2004 to 2008). A number of his ballets allude to the Russian heritage he shares with Baryshnikov—none more so than the amazing Namouna, A Grand Divertissement, recently premiered by the New York City Ballet. For Baryshnikov, he plumbs the classical mime gestures of 19th-century ballet and gives them a sly postmodern shaking-down. The dancer begins Valse-Fantasie (titled after the music by Mikhail Glinka that it’s set to) in a slanted rectangle of light, checking himself out in an imaginary mirror. Yes, he looks fine in his white shirt and pants, his black jacket. He evidently hears the same taped male voice we do. Glinka, we’re told, fell in love with a high-society beauty, but “circumstances kept them apart”; when he saw her again years later, he no longer felt anything for her. Baryshnikov shrugs, as if to say, “So that’s a story?”
But he gives us the story and more by his gaze, his body language, and the many nuances he strokes onto the familiar ballet-pantomime gestures: “You are (she is) beautiful,” “I love you (her),” “Marry me?” “I’ll kill myself.” The music calls for sweeping, lyrical steps and then summons up a turbulence that necessitates the removal of the jacket. The stage seems to be peopled; there are acquaintances to greet, hands to kiss. Occasionally, the dancer flashes us a conspiratorial smile.
In her work-in progress, For You, to music by Peter Whitehead, Susan Marshall builds on Baryshnikov’s palpable love of performing. In this solo, his last of the evening, he risks a bit more jumping, more expansive steps—still in that trying-things-out mode. But there are two chairs onstage and a third can be procured. One by one, he draws three spectators from the front row and does a little snatch of dancing for each. To emphasize the privacy of it, the first guest starts out seated close to the wings, facing offstage, and Baryshnikov dances out of our sight for several seconds. He’s very gentle with these people—charming—and pretty soon, he’s dancing for all three, filling the space they surround. (Who in the audience didn’t half wish to be up there too?) In the end, Tipton frames each of them in a spotlight, and they take a bow with the star. The message is subtle; he is dancing for each of us, all of us, and without us, it’d be no fun.
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.
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.