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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the June 5, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Misha’s `Achilles’ Challenge

Choreographer Richard Move probably owes his collaboration

with dance legend Mikhail Baryshnikov to Mother.

No, Move’s mother does not hold any special influence over the former

superstar of Russian and American ballet. "Mother" was a hole-in-the-wall

cabaret club in Manhattan’s meat packing district where, over the

course of the 1990s, the young Move’s inventive and outrageous performing

flair earned him the affection of dance artists and dance critics

alike.

Working on a shoestring at the nightclub he co-founded with three

others, Move created "Martha @ Mother," his drag impersonation

of Martha Graham, iconic founder of American modern dance.

Move’s Martha became a monthly staple at Mother for four years before

the space closed in 2000. During that time, Mark Morris, Yvonne Rainer,

Merce Cunningham, and Baryshnikov were just a few of the prominent

dancers who enjoyed the send-up and then accepted Move’s invitation

to share the stage with "La Graham."

Richard Move’s latest work, for Baryshnikov and the White Oak Dance

Project, will be presented at McCarter Theater Saturday, June 8 at

8 p.m., and Sunday, June 9 at 2 p.m. The world premiere of Move’s

"The Show (Achilles Heel)" shares the concert program with

"Largo," a solo for Baryshnikov by Lucinda Childs, and "Early

Floating" by Erick Hawkins, performed by Baryshnikov and the company.

Chances are that "The Show (Achilles Heel)," a performance

piece rooting in the story ballet tradition, will feature Mikhail

Baryshnikov doing a little cross-dressing of his own. The hour-long

piece features "Misha" in a role loosely based on the Greek

hero Achilles. Sonja Kostich, a dancer with American Ballet Theater,

will dance Helen of Troy (the role Move says he would most like to

dance), Miguel Anaya portrays Achilles’ friend Patroclus, and Rosalynde

LeBlanc is the Goddess Athena. "The Show" features songs by

Deborah Harry of the rock group Blondie, an original sound score by

Arto Lindsay, and visual design by painter Nicole Eisenman.

The White Oak Dance Project, brainchild of Baryshnikov and Mark Morris,

made its debut in 1990 with a program of works by Morris. Since that

time, the small diverse troupe has produced over 40 tours of an eclectic

group of dance works, presenting hundreds of performances in 30 countries.

White Oak’s first McCarter Theater appearance was in 1999 with a program

of works by an international roster of young choreographers. In 2000

the company returned with four nights of "Past-Forward," an

ambitious, historically-rooted program of new and revived works by

rebel American choreographers of the Judson Dance Theater of the 1960s.

Many of the artists came to Princeton to restage their works, including

David Gordon (who also directed "Past-Forward"), Deborah Hay,

Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Simone Forti, and Trisha Brown. About

40 community members of all ages performed historic `pedestrian’ dances

by Forti, Paxton, and Gordon.

Yet even by the standards of the Judson "renegades" Richard

Move is a daring stretch for the ever-curious Baryshnikov.

As he prepared for the preview of this major new work — which

he described as "the sweet terror" — Move described "The

Show" as a non-linear narrative loosely inspired by the characters

and often surreal scenarios from the Greek myth of Achilles.

Mythology was a natural choice for Move, steeped in

the mythology of "La Graham." Universal themes were Martha

Graham’s inspiration. And in the 1940s, the sagas of classical antiquity

became her favorite subjects. Her dances "Errand Into the Maze,"

"Cave of the Heart," and "Clytemnestra" constitute

a crash course in Greek mythology. Move describes his new work as

an exploration of the age-old obsession with fate, mortality, transformation,

fame, and glory in the afterlife.

In recent years Move has choreographed Dame Shirley Bassey’s "Diamonds

are Forever" performance at the Cannes Film Festival. He also

directed "LES MIZrahi," last year’s one-man show performed

by famed fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, and produced and directed

a show for the notorious professional wrestler, the Sheik.

Although Baryshnikov portrays a central character inspired by Achilles,

Move says "The Show" is very much a contemporary story, shot

through with irony and humor.

"The first time I met Misha, he had come to several of Martha

@ Mother performances in New York — and since he returned, I thought

he must like it. So I got up the courage to ask him to be in one,"

says Move. The 6-foot-4 Move’s own portrayal of the diminutive Martha

Graham has been described as a "hilarious and technically perfect

impersonation."

The dance variety show Move devised for Baryshnikov at Mother, featured

"Martha" in conversation with Yvonne Rainer. "We called

it `Debate 2000,’ and the premise was that Martha, as the quintessential

modernist, was butting heads with the quintessentially post-modern

Yvonne Rainer. The punch line was that Rainer tells Martha, `Let me

show you something I’ve choreographed,’ and Baryshnikov appeared."

"My show’s as much an homage to Martha as it is satire," says

Move. It’s based in a rather scholarly study of her, but the humor

is derived from the very dry, ego-maniacal manner she had." Graham’s

impressive, larger-than-life persona enables Move, at a statuesque

six-foot-four to impersonate the diminutive dance pioneer.

Move was born and raised in Fredericksburg, Virginia, the younger

of two sons. His father, now retired from a career in law enforcement,

and his mother, who worked for the federal court system in Washington,

now live in Maine, where his mother still works for the court system.

Move says he never set out to become a dancer. He took his first dance

class by chance during his high school years.

"I had an amazing theater teacher who encouraged us to take a

dance class from a `movement for actors’ point of view. And lo and

behold, in little Fredericksburg, there was one dance studio

offering one modern dance class. I was a teenager, and I was thinking,

`I’m modern, I’ll take that.’ I was expecting a stylized exercise

class but right away I was struck by the mysticism and the almost

religious approach of teacher and students."

"Martha used very poetic and profound and beautiful imagery when

she taught that was very related to the mechanics of her technique,"

says Move, "but she also had this bigger picture of developing

you as a person and an artist."

He gives as an example the way Graham described the position of the

torso by asking the dancer to think "that there are diamonds on

your collarbone catching the light." In her signature movement

sequence, the contraction, she asks the dancer to "see the heavens,

deepen over and see the earth, and in the release you dwell within."

"These were big ideas for a teenager to hear," says Move,

who also saw the Martha Graham company on tour during his high school

years. Then as a student at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond,

Move switched from theater to dance major. He was impressed by the

dance theater of Martha Clarke and Meredith Monk, and the stage work

of Robert Wilson. As soon as he completed his BFA degree, Move headed

for New York.

Move stresses that his connection with Graham came as an actor studying

a character. "A study of Graham is a study of 20th-century art

in terms of her collaborators, her ideas, music, artists, costume

design," he says. "She was a pivotal figure in 20th-century

art, with a career that spanned all the way from the early 1920s to

the 1990s." She was also a prolific writer and eloquent speaker,

he adds.

Move says he "brooded" on a possible subject for his White

Oak commission for a few months before heading for a three-week artist’s

residency at the White Oak Plantation in Florida. White Oak is a 7,500

acre wildlife preserve on the Florida-Georgia border owned by Baryshnikov’s

close friend and art patron, the late Howard Gilman. Here, in specially

built facilities, the dancers of White Oak Dance Project first came

together and rehearsed.

Being in these lovely surroundings "was like a fantasy, a heightened

state," says Move. "They feed you, give you a beautiful studio,

they really take care of you."

"Basically I lived in a fantastical dream state for three weeks;

I read voraciously and listened to music." White Oak is also a

preserve for rare and endangered animals. "The animals they had

there fed into my one-of-a-kind experience," he says. "There

is so much animal imagery in myth, it feeds the imagination. In `The

Show’ you’ll see dancers portraying horses and birds." Joined

by Baryshnikov for the third week of his residency, Move then spent

seven weeks with the company in rehearsal in New York.

"Like any of the myths, in the myth of Achilles we are dealing

with these universal and timeless themes," says Move. "In

Achilles, we have this great warrior, this almost invulnerable leader,

with, of course, the one vulnerable spot, the heel. More interesting

is the moral and ethical dilemma he is in: the fates have forced him

to make this decision to lead the Greeks to victory over the Trojans

and die or he could live out a normal, quiet life — in shame,

probably.

"It’s a big question for one person and its questions of honor

and value still resonate. We all have difficult decisions to make.

I was interested in the dichotomy of great leader with this vulnerability,

this soft spot if you will."

Move relates how, early in Achilles’ life, his mother,

aware of the prophesy of her son’s doom, went to great lengths to

evade it. She dressed him as a woman and sent him to the all-woman

island Scyros.

"Achilles also had a rather strange relationship with Patroclus,

his best friend. We assume it’s a gay love story. And this is interesting

and universal in the way it relates to the private lives of our public

heroes today," he says.

"Those elements tickled my fancy — this Greek hero living

as a girl, and with this `best friend’ Patroclus. The psychology of

the character of a military leader with this private life was so fantastical

to me." Next to Patroclus, Achilles’ closest connection was with

his horse who, in the `Iliad,’ starts speaking to him. "His horse

informs him of the betrayals and reminds him of the prophesy of his

doom. So anyone who loves animals can identify here."

Move’s collaborators on "The Show" are all artists he has

known and worked with before, and all, he says, "seemed sympathetic

and interested in these great big ideas." Artist Nicole Eisenman’s

work is "very contemporary — she has a `bad girl of the art

world’ label, but a lot of her work has references to classical painting."

"The Show" uses a lot of Deborah Harry’s songs, especially

her ballads. "Deborah is a goddess herself, so it seemed appropriate,"

says Move, who met Harry 10 years ago. "The are no literal spoken

references, but the songs are perfectly placed to heighten and enhance

the drama and the emotion of the moment they’re placed in."

Move is best known as a controversial pioneer of the new cabaret,

a performance genre that he came to right out of college. Cabaret

still informs Move’s sensibility and his new work for White Oak.

"I was very excited by this idea," he says. "We worked

so fast and I could do whatever I wanted. Every week there was a different

theme with a corresponding show and decor. It was very topical, all

about turning the stuff out really quickly. And we took great risks.

"`The Show’ moves along at a pretty clipped pace," he says.

"The story advances and scenes change every few minutes. There’s

dancing, real theater moments, lip-synch dialogue. It feels very contemporary.

In certain ways it’s old fashioned because it is a story ballet —

but with a lot of contradictory elements."

— Nicole Plett

The White Oak Dance Project, McCarter Theater, 91

University Place, 609-258-2787. $40 & $50. Saturday, June 8, 8

p.m., and Sunday, June 9, 2 p.m.


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