How does a ballet dancer of 53, a major player in the athletic sweepstakes that transformed ballet from something prissy into a universe of sleek swains and hard-driving technical accomplishment, prepare to share a stage with modern dancers in their youthful prime?
The same way he’s always prepared—with ballet exercises. One steamy May afternoon, in the fourth-floor Soho studio of choreographer Lucinda Childs, Mikhail Baryshnikov, arguably the most famous dancer of our time, the man who made ballet a draw on prime-time television and in the movies, put himself through his paces, in anticipation of his White Oak Dance Project’s “PASTForward” program, which opens at the
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House on Tuesday. (Baryshnikov and his troupe will perform mostly vintage dances by Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, David Gordon, Lucinda Childs, Simone Forti, Deborah Hay, and Trisha Brown.)
At five foot six and 135 pounds, Baryshnikov, familiarly known as Misha, is leaner now than he was a couple of decades ago, a more efficient dancing machine. Some days he heads off to a local dance studio, like Steps or the School of American Ballet, and takes ballet class “with everybody else, just to get blood going,” but today he’s working alone, at a freestanding metal barre, or leaning on the portable massage table by the windows. In a class, which may last an hour and a half, he must work at the pace of the group, waiting between exercises while the teacher corrects and criticizes. Here in the warm studio, putting himself through the series of exercises he does (and teaches) as naturally as breathing, he does not stop. (Later, his physical therapist will show up to repair the damage caused by the day’s workout; Misha claims that the major difference between him and the average New York dancer is that “I can afford to have my therapist come to me, so I don’t have to run around the city so much.”)
He’s wearing soft cotton jazz shoes specially made for him in Prague. Standing in third position, feet turned out and knees crossed, he begins by working his feet, pushing down on the balls, lifting the arches, then extending each foot to a point, in front, to the side, behind—the exercise known in ballet as tendu—dozens of times in each direction. Since he shed his constricting leather ballet slippers to work in modern dance, his feet have begun to spread; keeping them warm and flexible is crucial.
He does half a dozen repetitions of the sequence of knee bends known as pliés, and stretches his thigh muscles by grabbing his feet one at a time and holding them up behind him. He squats with his knees crossed, having a go at every available tendon and joint. He even stretches the fingers of both hands. Warming up completely now will mean no surprises later when he’s working with the group.
Though his process appears informal, and he’s jockeying conversations with several people at once, Misha remains in constant motion, never stops, never sits. The studio has no air-conditioning; a fan in one corner blows his blond cowlick as he runs through the port de bras (“carriage of the arm”) exercises that work his shoulders and the circular back bends that flex and energize his torso. He looks completely happy; the moist heat in the breezy room is perfect for aging muscles facing the stop-and-start work of a dance rehearsal. “Mucho calor,” he says. “I like it. I feel so much better in this weather.”
Baryshnikov has sustained injuries, primarily to his knee, that render ballet’s huge, abandoned jumps and turns impossible for him. But rather than slink off and rest on his substantial laurels, the artist who was perhaps the premier danseur of his generation has made a virtue of necessity. He’s forged a new career as a dancer, producer, and promoter of the seminal experimental work created by American postmodern pioneers in the ’60s and ’70s, and of the pieces they’re making now. This work is less physically challenging than ballet, but it engages Baryshnikov more thoroughly on an intellectual level.
The other members of White Oak, four women and two men between 28 and their early forties, show up a few minutes before rehearsal and stretch out a little. By the time Misha joins them on the broad, padded Marley floor, he’ll have been on his feet for an hour. At that point he will feel ready to work.
Raquel Aedo, the dancer who’s been with him longest, does a handstand against one wall. Backpacks, discarded clothing and shoes, and water bottles litter the space; the dancers drink constantly, alternating, like Misha, between water and coffee.
The rehearsal begins with a run-through of Lucinda Childs’s 1993 Concerto, the closing number on the bill, in which Misha’s precise placement and his ability to turn on a dime are constantly tested. Then he pulls a fisherman’s hat and vest over his practice clothes and pushes the elevator button. “Anyone need anything from outside?” he asks. “Sushi? Martinis? Beer?”
Dancing does not have to mean a life of deprivation: Misha eats what he likes, drinks when he’s out on the town, and revels in the creative freedom his career as a ballet and film star has allowed him to buy.
Back from the deli, he unwraps an egg sandwich on a kaiser roll and eats it, standing up, while watching the run-through of another piece. A moment later he’s rolling a wooden massage tool back and forth under the soles of his feet. Then he’s down on the floor, rolling his spine along a six-inch white rubber ball, stretching his hamstrings by pulling his knees to his chest.
Trisha Brown shows up and Misha rehearses his rendition of her Homemade, a piece in which he’ll wear an old-fashioned film projector on his back, performing a sequence of movements while his projected image, trailing behind him on walls and curtains, does exactly the same things.
“Great, Misha,” she tells him. “You’ve made it your own.” He comes and kisses her hand.
The remarkable thing about this process is the pleasure Baryshnikov appears to take in it, the palpable glee he brings to the work and shares with his young colleagues. They have the physical camaraderie of athletes, but they’re inspired by more than endorphins. They know they’ve hooked up with one of the dance world’s most amazing enterprises, one of its most generous artists.
Young dancers triumph with their bodies. Older ones need to use their brains. Misha has built himself the perfect environment, one in which he can work indefinitely, one that privileges ideas over physical tricks. He can continue to dance, and he can continue to learn.