By Nancy T. Lu
Expect no pyrotechnics, said Mikhail Baryshnikov of the White Oak Dance Project’s modern dance repertoire at the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in Taipei. That was years ago - to be exact, in February 2001. Watch out more for the lyrical quality of the dance poetry as each beautiful piece unfolds on the stage. Fun, too, is in store, he promised.
This was a chance to see Baryshnikov, still in good shape, move with much younger dancers without giving away his age. He said during an interview in Hong Kong before his arrival in Taipei that he works seven hours a day without fail. He also puts in two more hours of rehearsal before a performance.
Baryshnikov follows no strict regimen to stay physically fit and in shape. The trim dancer flashed his disarming smile from time to time, revealing: “I eat everything I want. I drink in moderation. I smoke sometimes a good cigar.” He even claimed to weigh less in 2001 than he used to at age 18 simply because he burned up everything he ate.
The dance program he brought to Taipei was very Baryshnikov in the sense hat everything he stood for found expression in the selection of almost all commissioned dance choreographies. His romantic and playful personality came through. There were nonetheless suggestions of the classical dance he used to do.
The legendary dancer and former artistic director of the American Ballet Theater, already the leader of a mixed group of seven performers, was convinced that fireworks in technique should be left to talents in rhythmic gymnastics and ice skating.
“It is wrong for pyrotechnics to have taken over dance in the last 20 years,’ he remarked then. “When I was dancing classical ballet roles, pyrotechnics never emerged my priority. I wanted to show the dance and not the pyrotechnics.”
Baryshnikov explained further: “Modern dance is almost street movement. This is more contemporary folk movement. It looks simple. People in the audience may even say, ‘Hey, I can also do that.’” Okay, try it with us.”
He, who actually danced in four of the five works in the Taipei program, went on: “That’s what I like about modern dance. People can relate to the movement. They recognize it. At the same time the dance is something new to them.”
The White Oak Dance Project’s program in Taipei included John Jasperse’s “See Through Knot,” Mark Morris’ “Pecadillos,” David Gordon’s “For the Love of the Rehearsal,” Mark Morris’ “The Arrangement,” and Lucinda Childs’ “The Concerto.”
Baryshnikov even got to wear a Marcel Marceau kind of costume when he executed the dance narrative created on his body by Mark Morris during a three-week period in New York.
In his mind, the biggest challenge in having a group like White Oak is to find good choreographers, spotting the unknown ones especially in the beginning of their careers, so as to commission new works. Many well-known choreographers are very willing to work with the White Oak group but Baryshnikov is more after discovering fresh and upcoming talents.
Baryshnikov is proud of his dancers. They are like his closely-knit family. He knows each one of them very well. When he was with the ABT, he didn’t have to know everyone in the huge company.
He – Misha to those with whom he works – described his two Filipino dancers – Michael Lomeka, who grew up in Guam, and Keith Sabado, who was born in Seattle – as “extraordinary modern dancers.” Emmanuele Phuon is a French Cambodian while Rosalynde LeBlanc is an Afro American boran in Baltimore, Baryland. Raquel Aedo, whom Baryshnikov found at the Merce Cunningham School, is of Cuban descent. Emily Coates, formerly of the New York City Ballet, is one of only two dancers in the group with classical dance training.
Baryshnikov with his Kirov Ballet days behind him said at the time of the interview that he had been studying modern dance much longer than ballet. His classic dance training took nine years but that on modern dance went on for more than 20 years.
Fame and success – the kind experienced by Baryshnikov in the world of dance – make people wonder: What has been his greatest satisfaction as a dancer?
“To make my own mistake and not having to blame anybody for it,” came the reply during the encounter in Hong Kong.
Would he, if given the chance, live his life exactly as he has done all over again?
“Well, except for some mistakes, I would,” he said, while chuckling over his own human frailties. He admitted to having done some “stupid things.” But he has learned from experience.
Did he at any point consider giving up dance completely.?
“After I left the American Ballet Theater,” he said, “I wanted to take a break. So I went to Europe. For five or six months, I did nothing. I just took classes. I did not have any plan. For one year, I would say, I did not dance.”
He continued: “I could have danced with any company and could have traveled without any problem. But I wanted to start something meaningful. I realized I wanted to do something new all the time.
“For me, the greatest satisfaction is to work on the creation of a dance whatever it becomes – a failure or a success. To work with the choreographer in the studio is the biggest and most interesting time. Performing – this is already business.”
Has he ever considered turning choreographer?
“I never thought of choreographing myself,” he responded. “I don’t have the talent for it. Sure, I could come up with a piece. But when you have the luxury to work with the best choreographers, why should you add your mediocre work?”
He went on: “Believe me, I see a lot of work. Ninety percent is terrible. Only one out of ten choreographers is a good choreographer. That is true everywhere – and not just in dance but also in movie, theater and so forth.”
Baryshnikov turned around to sum: “There is so much art but so little good art."