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This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
July 19, 2000. All rights reserved.
Prince of Downtown Dance: Baryshnikov
Nearly 40 years ago, Steve Paxton choreographed a
walking, crouching, sitting dance during which he removed most of
the articles of clothing he was wearing and hung them niftily on hooks
he had taped to his body before dressing in them again. Paxton was
one of 14 iconoclastic and creative American choreographers who shared
a free, three-hour concert of extremely odd dances at the Judson
Church just off Washington Square in New York in July, 1962.
That first Judson concert is remembered as a sweltering day and as
a watershed year for American dance. But a world away, at the famed
Vaganova Ballet School in Leningrad, the 14-year-old Mikhail
was busy practicing his plies and pirouettes, oblivious to the dance
revolution in New York.
The Judson concerts, which grew and expanded over six or seven banquet
years, have become mythic in American dance, among those who made
them and those who have simply heard and read about them. An early
program, for instance, included Lucinda Childs’ "Carnation,"
in which the dancer places a salad colander on her head and proceeds
to painstakingly insert hair curlers into the colander, before moving
along a sheet she has placed on the stage, and attacking a seemingly
inoffensive blue plastic bag.
Now Mikhail Baryshnikov, who grew to be one of the most admired
ballet dancers of the 20th century, is offering us all another look
at Judson and the choreographers who began their careers there.
who leapt over the Iron Curtain at age 26, is bringing America’s past
forward with his White Oak company’s latest project, "Past
The concert program, opening in Princeton and set to tour
offers a grand union of seven Judson alumni — Deborah Hay, Trisha
Brown, Lucinda Childs, Simone Forti, David Gordon, Yvonne Rainer,
and Paxton — in a sampler of some Judson benchmarks and an array
of new works performed by Baryshnikov and his White Oak dancers. The
project is directed by one of Judson’s protean members, David Gordon.
McCarter Theater hosts the project in its developmental stages with
four performances, Thursday, August 3, through Sunday, August 6.
dances throughout the run with his company of six that features Raquel
Aedo, Emily Coates, Emmanuele Phuon, all of whom performed at last
year’s McCarter engagement. Company newcomers are Rosalynde LeBlanc,
formerly of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, and Juilliard
"I think essentially this sort of bizarre circumstance of this
Russian ballet star who becomes the foremost person in America to
save the history of modern dance — is an irony," says Gordon,
in an interview from New York, where the company is in intensive
Gordon compares the Judson crucible to the turn-of-the-century milieu
of the Parisian painters. "In the same way that all those painters
were in Paris at the same moment, paying attention to what each other
was doing, and having a dialogue on canvas with each other, what
in the early ’60s was that all of these people who had come to New
York were showing each other who they were and what they thought,
and they were affecting each other."
It was no coincidence that the dancers who looked at all movement
— from a slump-shouldered walk and a roll across the floor to
dressing and undressing or sitting in a chair — as legitimate
fodder for the choreographer’s art, were working alongside the Civil
Rights movement and the youth protests against the Vietnam War. This
was also a rare moment when dance sat near the top of the fine arts
heap, attracting artists from all the arts disciplines, including
painters Robert Rauschenberg and Alex Hay, and sculptors Walter de
Maria and Robert Morris.
Two complete programs of new and old works by the Judson
dancers, programs that are both independent and complementary, are
planned. Technicians, company members, and choreographers begin
on Monday, July 24, for roughly 10 days’ work to finalize the program.
Lighting will be by Jennifer Tipton, the dance world’s singlemost
revered lighting designer who also performed in the Judson 1962 debut.
"My official job is to be the director and writer of the whole
event, to put it together in some fashion," Gordon explains. What
is he putting together? "We’ll know a lot more about what that
is after Princeton."
"Past Forward" will certainly include all or parts of Gordon’s
1975 "Chair," originally created as a duet for himself and
his wife and partner Valda Setterfield (actually a trio if you count
the chair.) Also featured is his more recent "Beethoven" —
a 1998 quartet to music by Beethoven. There’s also another new Gordon
work for the White Oak company, to Bach unaccompanied cello preludes,
called "For the Love of Rehearsal."
Featured among the revivals will be Yvonne Rainer’s "The Mind
is a Muscle" (now known as "Trio A") of 1964. This
designed to be performed by trained or untrained dancers, is
minutes of movement performed without peaks or valleys, constant
in which each step and gesture appears only once.
Also in rehearsal for the McCarter program is Paxton’s "Satisfyin’
Lover" of 1967, a walking, stopping, and sitting dance for 42
ordinary people (recruited from a cross section of area community
groups, a contact improv group, and from a posting at McCarter
who walk from stage right to stage left according to a strict written
score. (In 1970 Paxton tried to present a performance for 42 nude
redheads, but that’s not the version slated here.)
Gordon and Baryshnikov’s friendship goes back to Gordon’s first
from American Ballet Theater (ABT), "Field, Chair and
of 1985, to music by the Irish composer John Field, for a cast of
20 that included Martine van Hamel and Clark Tippet. The following
year, Baryshnikov was featured in Gordon’s comic spoof,
for ABT, which also featured narration by Valda Setterfield, scenery
and costumes by Edward Gorey, and music of Hector Berlioz.
"Misha had come to see my work downtown at the Dance Theater
and called me," Gordon recalls. "Misha was then doing at ABT
what he has continued to do with White Oak which is — in my
— revolutionary in America: To erase the boundaries between the
various art forms and to insist on being interested in the dance forms
he’s interested in."
Baryshnikov defected to the United States during the
Kirov’s 1974 tour, when he was already an international star. In New
York he spent time at New York City Ballet and at American Ballet
Theater where his 1976 boundary-breaking tour de force in Twyla
Tharp’s jazzy and genial "Push Comes to Shove" gave a clear
indication of things to come. This is a dancer, after all, who left
home, family, and friends for a more expansive chance at his art.
From 1980 to 1989, as his ballet performing years wound down, he
American Ballet Theater, where he commissioned more new works by
modern dance choreographers such as Gordon, Tharp, and Morris.
Since 1990, Baryshnikov’s performing life has been revived by the
White Oak Dance Project, a company — or more accurately a concept
— he devised with choreographer Mark Morris. The project was
expressly to create repertory and extended residencies to serve both
dancers and their art. Within two years of White Oak’s founding,
withdrew to devote his attention to his own company, and
took on White Oak as his principal forum.
The company, which began its commissions with the most prominent names
in choreography, has grown increasingly adventuresome, and an
springboard for an emerging generation of young choreographers. Last
year, its pair of McCarter programs included works by such major
as Trisha Brown and Mark Morris, as well as highlighting the
Neil Greenberg, Australian choreographer Lucy Guerin, and Amy O’Brien.
A program highlight was a pungent new solo for Baryshnikov by the
Japanese Kabuki artist Tamasaburo Bando.
The eventual White Oak "Past Forward" program will open with
film by Charles Atlas with a voice-over in which Baryshnikov talks
about the Judson era, what went on, where he was, and where the Judson
artists went. (Most are considered the elder statesmen of modern dance
today, commanding big audiences in big venues in the U.S. and Europe.)
Gordon explains, however, that in all likelihood the film will not
be ready for Princeton, so there will be a different kind of opening
event, based on the same written material, and narrated by
"Misha is host because he’s essentially the curator of this show.
It is he who went and spoke personally with every single person
to this to begin to put together what he wanted," says Gordon.
"When he came to me about directing it, I said it looked to me
like he was already doing it. What does he need from me? And he very
sweetly said `help.’ So I like him very much and I think we’re friends
and so I’m helping."
"This isn’t about a recreation of some past event. It is simply
a gathering together of artists who began — who combusted —
somewhere at the same time, and have gone their separate ways over
the years — whose work shares having been initially performed
in a certain place at a certain time."
Gordon’s witty and ingenious dance works, which frequently employed
both speech, visual elements, and props, have never been easy to
His latest work, "Autobiography of a Liar," for 12 performers
of the David Gordon Pick-Up Company, ran at New York’s Dancespace
in January. It included Lola Pashalinsky, an actor from the Charles
Ludlum Ridiculous Theater Company, playing a character named David
"My own feeling is that I was making theater dance when I was
making only dance, and when I go into theater it says `directed and
choreographed by’ — and I think I do a kind of staging which is
dance. So I’m just looking at the whole range of what can be done
in relation to what I’m interested in."
Another mover and shaker of the Judson era is Deborah Hay, a maverick
dance artist who now lives and works in Austin, Texas. Hay rejected
all physically destructive dance technique, both of her ballet
and of the Merce Cunningham dance company with which she performed.
Her work was deeply influenced by Chinese Tai Chi practice and has
evolved into a unique technique and philosophy of total engagement.
Hay has two pieces in the "Past Forward" project, both newly
minted. "Whiz" is for the company of six. Also premiering
is a duet for Baryshnikov and Hay called "Single Duet."
"The reason I’m doing new pieces is that I couldn’t possibly
any of my works from then. I could never remember them and they’re
nowhere notated," she says guilelessly.
"The duet with Misha came as quite a surprise both to me and to
the project," says Hay. "I wasn’t asked to do a duet, it came
to me in a flash. It usually takes me six months to make a piece.
And it wasn’t even on my mind. It just came to me as a total duet
and I made very detailed notes from beginning to end.
"I wrote to Misha the same day and told him what had happened.
And he called me right away and said we had to do it.
"I think that’s an indication of why this project is happening
— because he’s so available. He’s an open-minded person and he’s
smart. He doesn’t run from things. He’s ferocious in his appetite
for connection with other artists. He’s running toward
Hay has no previous connection with Baryshnikov. "He had seen
a video of me performing my most recent solo, `FIRE,’"
she says, "and called me and we had a 45-minute conversation about
his experience with that video. He was interested in the theatricality
of it. That was an element of dance that he felt he hadn’t seen."
Hay was invited to the White Oak Foundation in Florida in February
where she spent four days. "I performed `FIRE’ for him
live. Then he asked me what I wanted to do with the company. It’s
an absolutely — I can’t get my head around what’s going on. It’s
so enormous, I think. My new book is coming out in October. Everything
seems to be happening so generously to me right now."
"Choreographically the duet has a very simple form. And the form
stayed the same. But it’s how he performs it — I think it’s a
tour de force. It’s like watching two different planets on
the stage together. In a sense it’s symbolic of the whole project.
I trust him utterly as a performer. And I trust the process by which
we will both arrive at a place of this being truly a `single
As a dancer whose technique is predicated on the idea of dancing
Hay actively supports Baryshnikov’s desire to keep his performing
"I just see it as such a courageous and generous act on his part
to say, `Yes I want more, and I want to grow, and I want to change.’
For him to be going into the second part of his life and to be
change in the way he is, he is certainly not a dancer who needs to
be bolstered on any point, but rather enhanced, and taking the dance
more soulfully into his life, perhaps."
Moving out of a century when ballet and modern dance rarely met at
all — and even Martha Graham’s dancers were instructed not to
talk to the students of her rival Doris Humphrey — this Russian
ballet star is reminding us all to celebrate dance.
609-258-2787. Mikhail Baryshnikov and his White Oak Dance Project
present new works and revivals by ’60s choreographers including Yvonne
Rainer, David Gordon, Deborah Hay, Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton and
Simone Forti. $45 & $50. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, August
3 to 5, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, August 6, at 2 p.m. www.mccarter.org
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