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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the January 3, 2001

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Nicole Plett: Dancing with Baryshnikov

The year 2000 was major for Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Awarded

a National Medal of Arts for his outstanding contributions to the

arts in the United States, he was further feted by President Bill

Clinton last week at the Kennedy Center Honors, an annual gala

televised

on CBS, which he shared with rock ‘n roll great Chuck Berry, opera

tenor Placido Domingo, Hollywood’s Clint Eastwood, and British-born

Angela Lansbury. Standing beside Hillary Clinton and shoulder to

shoulder

with the other arts venerables, you could say that the cross-cultural

journey of the former Soviet ballet superstar was well and truly

complete.

Perhaps less widely noticed was the moment of that same millennial

year when reality well and truly outstripped my personal dream life.

Or is dream life too strong a term? After all, when is the last time

any of us dreamed that we danced onstage with Mikhail Baryshnikov?

Yet this particular Friday night (August 4, 2000, to be exact),

onstage

at Princeton’s McCarter Theater, I somehow mentally pause long enough

in the middle of my star turn — a walk across the stage —

to get my mind around the fact that here I am, sharing the stage —

almost brushing shoulders at this particular moment — with

Baryshnikov.

Our dance is David Gordon’s "The Matter," and I am floating

forward to the music of "La Bayadere." Crossing slowly from

stage left to stage right, I see on my right a brightly illuminated

and busy "Misha" walking backwards, straight towards me; while

on my left hangs the enormous black chasm where I know an audience

of more than 1,000 is seated.

August was when I serendipitously became a community participant in

the Princeton residency of Baryshnikov’s White Oak dance company and

its "Past Forward" tour. The company spent two weeks

developing

two programs of new and old works by choreographers of the Judson

Dance Theater. These "work-in-progress" concerts were part

of the development process for White Oak’s fall tour that opened in

Anchorage in early October, with engagements in Kansas, Arizona,

Hawaii,

California, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., concluding

in early December with a six-performance run in Paris.

Baryshnikov became the unlikely, foreign-born Prince of Downtown Dance

with commissions and revivals by Judson giants Steve Paxton, David

Gordon, Yvonne Rainer, Deborah Hay, Lucinda Childs, Simone Forti,

and Trisha Brown. As someone who crossed over to dance writing from

painting and sculpture in the 1970s because of the

"post-moderns"

(as we used to call them), this chance to re-visit the Judson, 30

years after the fact, in the company of its inventive and stalwart

choreographers, and under the aegis of a superstar, proved to be among

my most re-invigorating and joyful dance experiences ever.

Princeton’s community contingent of about 30, an extraordinary mix

of participants ages 10 to 66, was recruited to learn and perform

Paxton’s "Satisfyin Lover." Another dozen "dancer

participants"

worked with Simone Forti to perform her "Huddle" and

"Scramble."

And then there was the matter of David Gordon’s "The Matter,"

never explicitly addressed at the outset, which 27 of the 42 also

performed, this time with Baryshnikov.

Our first meeting has the most intriguing dynamic. This is when all

42 "Satisfyin Lover" participants — of all ages, shapes,

sizes, and colors — come together late one Wednesday afternoon

to meet with choreographers Steve Paxton and David Gordon (as well

as the mythic "Misha") for the first time.

Assembled in the cramped Trap Room under the stage at McCarter, we

are mostly strangers to one another. (Although no stranger to

Princeton,

I know only one member of the group, a 25-year-old freelance writer

who also works for a county homeless agency). Everyone is holding

their cards close to the chest; both the 42, few of whom are

acquainted,

and Paxton and Gordon, who are maximizing an air of casual

nonchalance.

This makes for a lot of individual jolts of electricity, rather than

the tribal hum that gradually develops over the course of our five

days’ work together.

In the height of summer, Paxton wears a black shirt

and faded blue corduroys. Still slender, bearded, his graying hair

cropped short, he has a burnished outdoor tan (and he still has to

step outside to smoke). Introducing himself, he remarks on the fact

that he has never set "Satisfyin Lover" in a theater before

— only in gymnasiums and halls and such. The paradox, he says,

is the "preparation to be ordinary," all this care and

attention

and waiting (during the days that follow we learn most about the

waiting)

that goes into any stage performance.

He describes "Satisfyin Lover" — that dance about walking,

standing, and sitting — as a river of people, all going in the

same direction, with one backward moment. Many critics and dancers

know it by its score, first published in 1968, and included in its

entirety in Sally Banes’ "Terpsichore in Sneakers" in 1980.

But our community contingent is, for the most part, a blank slate.

Paxton divides all present into six groups; the last member of each

group acts as a rear-guard leader who checks attendance and carries

the cue card with the group’s part of the score. As a member of Group

E, #33, my instructions are not too hard to follow: "Cue #32 sits.

Walk across."

I have not danced on a stage since the age of about 10; and even if

you count in some teen acting, I would say it has been more than 30

years since I have set foot on the other side of the footlights. On

Wednesday, our dress rehearsal debut, I was completely terrified,

although the terror gradually subsided over the following days.

"Here go our 15 seconds of fame," is the cryptic observation

of Joanne, a slender, soft-spoken African-American woman who I later

learned is a top-rank Princeton University administrator.

"Remember,

we’re swans, not ducks," is my favorite comment, proclaimed in

a loud whisper by a portly, white Princeton headhunter, to strains

of Minkus, as we prepared to perform "The Matter." At 66,

John is the elder statesman of our crew, a theater buff and a cancer

survivor. Each participant, without exception, was notable, including

Skylier, a heavy homeless boy of 10; Jack, a gangly high school teen

working as the theater’s summer intern; Howard, a librarian; and two

pairs of sisters, ages 16 and under, who shared interests in drama,

ballet, and boys. Then there is Valda Setterfield, Gordon’s wife and

partner, an accomplished dancer who almost blends in to our odd mix.

Before the opening night show, Paxton, suffused with emotion after

watching and then receiving other artists’ response to our dress

rehearsal

performance of "Satisfyin Lover," shares some glorious

comments

and conversation. Asked what kind of work he was doing at the time

he made this dance, he launches into a story about how he was studying

ballet and dancing with Merce Cunningham at the time; and how he was

becoming powerfully aware of the body as a pair of spirals ("Now

we know it as the double helix"). Saying this, he stands and

raises

his arms fifth high and twists his torso first one way and then the

other in a pair of glorious opposing spirals.

He takes a large step. "We walk without being conscious of what

we’re doing," he says, "like a fish moving through water."

Then he undulates from the top of his head, through his hips, and

down to his toes. He was thinking, he says, about the possibility

of intelligent fish. (When asked about the origin of the title,

"Satisfyin

Lover," he offers the intriguing non sequitur: "I had a

Southern

friend at the time who talked that way — that’s why there’s no

apostrophe.")

Gordon, who is director and writer for the entire

"Past

Forward" project, a bit on the rotund side these days, takes more

of a ringmaster approach with us. In "The Matter," our

attenuated

walk from downstage left to downstage right begins right after the

familiar opening harp arpeggios of Minkus’s glorious processional.

While we walk, Baryshnikov earnestly constructs a big pile of

backstage

junk — stools, boxes, caps and light cables, a ballet barre —

that gradually engulfs center stage.

"Do what Valda does," is Gordon’s primary instruction.

"You’re

walking slowly, slowly, moving through the whole foot as if you’re

getting treated by the chiropractor. But you’re also going somewhere.

Don’t be zombies; focus on where you’re going, over there, across

the road, to the other side of the street." I’m happy to follow

Valda; but I’m also concerned about falling apart. Then Gordon

helpfully

addresses the question of stage fright: "Just remember, it doesn’t

matter what you do, you’re going to walk across the stage." And

I do.

Unbeknownst to us this first day, a video camera in the wings projects

a lot of stuff onto the back wall: portrait shots of Baryshnikov

building

his edifice and huge headshots of each walker as she or he passes.

Taking place upstage during our walk is Ain Gordon’s "Broom

Solo,"

with movement references to cleaning and the crucifixion. The work’s

punch-line comes when Minkus’s music stops; in the pause before the

final harp sounds, we cross back quickly, like locusts, picking up

and carrying off any item in our path, removing every vestige of

Baryshnikov’s

artistic effort.

In real life, the Russian-born dancer extraordinaire seems to be

having

a love affair with the 1960s in every sense. He is not only bringing

gems of the Judson before the public, but each night of the four-night

run, he stays on the stage apron signing dozens of audience

autographs.

We, his on-stage partners, are kept safely at arms length for the

most part, but he rehearses us in our "informal" bows, at

least three times, to the roar of an accompanying rock anthem, and

each time he is unfailingly friendly and funny.

In one pre-show meeting we have been told to get off the stage faster

following bows; but when Misha is asked during the bow rehearsal to

reiterate this instruction, he just beams and says, "No, no, stay

as long as you like." His only request is that we get onto the

stage "a bit briskier." There are to be no traffic cops

"like

in Moscow," he tells us, "But when I say `Come,’ you come,

and when I say `Bow,’ you bow!" ("Yes, Misha," we 27

intone

silently to ourselves.)

In retrospect, as I muse over the difference between performing

Paxton’s

"Satisfyin Lover" and Gordon’s "The Matter," I see

it as the difference between walking across Washington Square in 1967

(the year I graduated from high school) and landing a role as a

demi-soloist

(we’re allowed to be ourselves) for Marius Petipa at the Maryinsky.

Either way, it’s a waking dream.

As we part following our final "Past Forward" performance,

all going our separate ways, heading back to our "real" lives,

Valda Setterfield pretty well sums it up: "Yes," she says,

"a lovely time was had by all."

— Nicole Plett


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