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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.
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
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
with the other arts venerables, you could say that the cross-cultural
journey of the former Soviet ballet superstar was well and truly
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),
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
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
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,
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
(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
worked with Simone Forti to perform her "Huddle" and
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
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
and Paxton and Gordon, who are maximizing an air of casual
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
and waiting (during the days that follow we learn most about the
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.
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.
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
performance of "Satisfyin Lover," shares some glorious
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
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,
Lover," he offers the intriguing non sequitur: "I had a
friend at the time who talked that way — that’s why there’s no
Gordon, who is director and writer for the entire
Forward" project, a bit on the rotund side these days, takes more
of a ringmaster approach with us. In "The Matter," our
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
junk — stools, boxes, caps and light cables, a ballet barre —
that gradually engulfs center stage.
"Do what Valda does," is Gordon’s primary instruction.
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
addresses the question of stage fright: "Just remember, it doesn’t
matter what you do, you’re going to walk across the stage." And
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
his edifice and huge headshots of each walker as she or he passes.
Taking place upstage during our walk is Ain Gordon’s "Broom
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
In real life, the Russian-born dancer extraordinaire seems to be
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
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
in Moscow," he tells us, "But when I say `Come,’ you come,
and when I say `Bow,’ you bow!" ("Yes, Misha," we 27
silently to ourselves.)
In retrospect, as I muse over the difference between performing
"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
(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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