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An Open Stance 

Mikhail Baryshnikov at 50

Wednesday, Jan 28 1998
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Mikhail Baryshnikov, father of four. Baryshnikov, who has lived 10 years with the same woman, Lisa Rinehart. How is it that the paparazzi (even the dance-magazine paparazzi — benign, persuasive) have not leaped upon him through the bushes of his home overlooking the Hudson River and stolen snaps of him throwing a baseball to his 8-year-old son, Peter? It is a curious thing that Baryshnikov has been so respectfully left alone.

It could be that his dancing is enough. There isn’t a need to know more (there really isn’t). But, more likely, the truth is that Baryshnikov is not interested in participating in the cult of personality. He’ll talk to you if it means you might possibly see something more in his performances. Not in him, but in the choreography and through it to what he calls "an internal logic." Among the other phrases he invents to suggest where he wants to take you through his art: "a level of passion," "exposed personal complexity." He is serious about being serious (a word he favors), and it doesn’t take any time to realize when talking to him that he is an exceptional listener. He wants to give something of himself; otherwise, you get the feeling, it’s a waste for him.

The subject during a recent phone conversation was the program of solo works he is bringing to the Wiltern Theater for six performances, February 7, 8, and 11 through 14, presented by the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts and the Japanese American Cultural Community Center. It’s his first U.S. solo concert tour. He just turned 50. To perform onstage alone at 50 in front of sold-out crowds at New York’s City Center (which is where the tour started on January 21) is, in the words of one of Baryshnikov’s choreographers, Kraig Patterson, nothing short of "heroic and kind." Why does Baryshnikov do it?

"I am having such a great time," he says. "I like to work with these people."

By "these people" he means choreographers Mark Morris, Dana Reitz, Sara Rudner and Patterson, and the White Oak Chamber Ensemble. (Baryshnikov never performs without live music, and the program at the Wiltern weaves dance and music pieces.) His choice of choreographers tells you exactly where he is living at this moment in time. He starts by talking about José Limón’s Chaconne, created in 1942 by the legendary modern dance choreographer to an excerpt from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor. Baryshnikov has been performing this piece for a number of years, but never in L.A., and he’s still changing it, mining from it new information about what he calls Limón’s "personal cadenza for a human soul."

"The music is one of the most gorgeous pieces Bach wrote," he says. "And José’s response has extraordinary simplicity, vigor and elegance. The choreography is such a handsome piece. You have to protect yourself, not to overdance and not think of yourself as a dancer. You have to almost underdance — it’s the most difficult task."

The 1942 production of Chaconne was not embraced by critics, causing Doris Humphrey, one of Limón’s teachers and a distinguished American choreographer in her own right, to write to The New York Times’ John Martin in its defense: "I see in the Chaconne implications of what one of the Greek philosophers meant when he said, ‘Every man should dance in order to understand the State and be a good citizen.’ Here are courage, balance in every sense, authority without boastfulness, power tempered with intelligence, the possibilities of the whole mature man brought to a high degree of perfection."

I read the passage to Baryshnikov, whose acquaintance with music is intimate; he speaks of dead modern-dance pioneers as if they are friends. Do Hum phrey’s words about Chaconne ring true to his experience?

"Chaconne is an extraordinary opportunity to project your personal interpretation. It’s extremely personal," he says. "That’s why it’s such a challenge. There is an obvious connection, somehow, between all the pieces on the programs. Whether they were made in 1942 or yesterday, they’re all under the same sky . . . They are all about the dignity of man."

While this "Evening of Music and Dance" venture may appear to be a sudden contrivance, having been added into the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts season long after the brochures went out, Baryshnikov says he’s been thinking about going solo for years. He launched parts of this program in Prague last fall and then made a historic return trip to Riga, Latvia, where he was born. He dedicated the solo concert to his mother, who committed suicide when he was 12. Accompanying him to Riga were Rinehart, two of his children and Joan Acocella, an American journalist who reported the event in the January 19 issue of The New Yorker.

In a rare emotional moment, Baryshnikov choked on tears when he addressed the staff and pensioners of the Latvian National Opera house and ballet school, who he had invited to a rehearsal. They were of the generation before him. They were his heritage, his old school. "And they’re all of them in me, in my body, in my brain," Baryshnikov later told Acocella. "You know, you learn to dance when you’re very young. And, in subconsciousness, you take pieces from every person. Even the worst dancers have two moves, one move, and you say, ‘What was that? How did he do that?’ And already it’s in you. That’s why I . . . that’s why it was very moving. Because, you know, I owe them."

The other works on his solo program demonstrate Baryshnikov’s sense of allegiance and history. Twyla Tharp brought him into the world of postmodern dance with Push Comes to Shove in 1976, and one of her dancers, Sara Rudner, has conceived (with sound artist Christopher Janney) HeartBeat: mb for Baryshnikov, an improv isational piece in which a wireless device is attached to the dancer’s chest so the audience can hear the amplified sound of his pulse. (It makes him feel "translucent," Baryshnikov says, while Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times noted that hearing his heartbeat made the audience "visibly nervous.") This work is paired with Dana Reitz’s Unspoken Territory. Mark Morris, who co-founded the White Oak Dance Project with Baryshnikov years ago, is represented by Three Russian Preludes, a relatively new work set to pieces by Shostakovich that has never been seen in L.A. Finally, Kraig Patterson — one of Morris’ dancers, who has already made three dances for Baryshnikov and White Oak — has created Tryst to Bach’s Concerto No. 3 in D minor.

"Misha’s done a lifetime of growing, and you can see it," says Patterson. "When he was a single and most eligible bachelor, he danced that way. Now he’s dancing with a knowingness of fatherhood. He’s a big family man. Whenever I call him at home, a baby is crawling on him or he’s playing ball. They lead a very simple life — he knows when to go home and take care of family."

If, as Baryshnikov says, everything in the dances is personal — "personal anxiety and personal hopes and personal attitudes toward music and time" — then this paternal image, so rarely glimpsed, will be onstage at the Wiltern, too. The greatest living dancer of our time, now 50, has nothing to hide.

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