Theater archives

Baryshnikov Projects a Sharper Image


In the New Victory Theater, a former XXX-rated porn-movie house restored to pristine condition by The New 42nd Street Inc. under the leadership of Cora Cahan, the cherubs perched around the ceiling’s illuminated dome usually peer down on seats filled with children and their parents. But, Cahan observes as well-heeled dance fans file into the steeply raked auditorium of this century-old jewel to watch Mikhail Baryshnikov’s touring dance troupe, “The kids are at camp. Now the grown-ups can come.”

Around the corner and across Times Square from the New Victory stands the brand new Condé Nast building, headquarters of a fashion-driven media empire. Inside the theater, the tableaux on the compact stage are often hard to distinguish from the spreads in CN magazines. Baryshnikov’s crafty project is to hire experimental choreographers, give them the time, money, and technical resources to make dances in which he can perform, and then let his
vaunted celebrity pack houses with people unlikely otherwise to encounter the Downtown aesthetic. The strategy works. From the moment the curtain rises on Misha, alone on stage in Neil Greenberg’s MacGuffin or How Meanings Get Lost (Revisited), we are looking at a synergy of art and popular culture, of celebrity and creativity. Many in the 500-seat auditorium, accustomed to the rituals of the opera house, applaud as the dancer is revealed, though he faces away from us and the bare stage is nearly dark.

Set to Bernard Herrmann’s score for the movie Psycho, Greenberg’s MacGuffin, like several of his later works, has supertitles projected over the head of the dancer. During the silent sections of the piece, we are mesmerized by the interaction between the movements of the dance and the projected words; it opens new pathways toward understanding, and helps the uninitiated to relax. We discover that it’s OK even to laugh. The projections resemble captions, quickly
reducing even the impeccable mover Baryshnikov to the status of a cartoon or a fashion ad, a conceit helped along by the fact that he keeps changing his shirt, replacing a black satin number with a white one and then a bright red one. He dances with his shadow. In what is captioned “finale,” the five women touring with him this season share his stage; this little feuilleton feels tacked on, but the women, in elegant summer dresses, are a pleasure to watch.

Baryshnikov spotted Amy O’Brien’s choreography at Dance Theater Workshop, and asked her to expand a solo into a piece for three women. To five familiar Chopin pieces, played live by
pianist Pedja Muzijevic, the women, in pale slips by Santo Loquasto, twist and pose and preen; the dance’s affect is exactly like leafing through a fashion spread. David Finn has lit the entire
program to emphasize a sleek, photo-studio ambience, never more adroitly than in this work, some of which is performed to the glow of one large, old-fashioned light bulb dangling from a cord downstage. Separately and together, the lush Raquel Aedo, the bright-haired, quizzical Emily Coates, and the slightly aloof Emmanuèle Phuon play with the varying dynamics of Chopin’s nocturnes, waltz, mazurka; when the music is racing, a dancer may deliberately hold still.

The evening blossoms choreographically in its second half, with Lucy Guerin’s Soft Center, a duet for Baryshnikov and Aedo, and Mark Morris’s The Argument, performed here by Baryshnikov and a cast of females (a change that radically alters its dynamic from our first peek at it last fall, when Morris performed a role now danced by a woman).

Soft Center‘s disjointed score combines music by a range of contemporary groups with a bit of Hindemith. Its costumes, by Liz Prince, cover white leotards with sheer blue tops and trousers. Its design sets the performers in opposite corners of the stage sending semaphore gestures into space; soon they come together, find ingenious ways to entangle themselves, and then back away; by the end he’s in the back, she’s in the front, and they’re moving in unison. Complex and demanding, it’s the purest of pure dance, totally matter-of-fact in its reliance on the resources of the human body. No romance here; just the steps, ma’am, and they’re gripping.

Baryshnikov flourishes in The Argument, a dance that exploits his unique resources like nothing since Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs. He’s engaged in a spat with the blond Susan Shields, as they prepare to go to a party. He grabs her and she resists, throwing an elbow toward his face. We see love duets all the time, but a good struggle is much meatier, and this piece has several, powerfully supported by Robert Schumann’s Fünf Stücke im Volkston, played live on cello and piano by Alberto Perrini and Muzijevic.

What fascinates about Morris’s work is the shifting power dynamic, often in the hands, literally, of the women. Ruthlyn Salomons levers Baryshnikov with an upraised arm bent at the elbow, moving him in the direction she wants him to go. There’s a tangoid undertone to sections of the piece, a tropism toward narrative that the structure resolutely resists. Using a social dance floor as an environment for these encounters is a brilliant strategy, allowing a heightened dynamic to look natural.

This week’s bill comprises a different Guerin piece, Two Lies; Karole Armitage’s brand-new The Last Lap; and a solo for Misha, Tamasaburo Bando’s Dance with Three Drums and Flute; it concludes with MacGuffin. There may be a few tickets left, given that haute New York is mostly on vacation; since you’re here, grab your MetroCard and check it out.