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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
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
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,
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,
"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
"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
University Place, 609-258-2787. $40 & $50. Saturday, June 8, 8
p.m., and Sunday, June 9, 2 p.m.
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