When Mikhail Baryshnikov dances alone, light and music consume him in a way they don't when he is with somebody else. Solo, he is the maker of his own tradition. The revelations of his dancing are arguably deeper and greater than when he is in a group, or paired. I don't know what this means for all the partners, male and female, with whom he has danced over the years, because there have been incredible performances with them. But until the recent solo concert tour that delivered him to the Wiltern, we have never seen him alone like this.
Baryshnikov's “An Evening of Music and Dance” was a program of four dances by four different choreographers (all from the modern dance form), spliced with three pieces of music (all classical) played by the impressive White Oak Chamber Ensemble. Baryshnikov's challenge was to connect the diverse material into a meaningful whole. He used everything available to him to feed this purpose: expert musicians who intuited that they were his dancing partners as much as they were his accompanists; lighting designs that understood – literally stood under and supported – the choreography; and costumes that focused attention on Baryshnikov's interpretive priorities.
Baryshnikov built the evening, balancing it. The first dance was Jose Limon's Chaconne, and Baryshnikov, dressed in all-black macho biker's attire (by Isaac Mizrahi), danced to Bach's glorious piece of the same name (played on the piano by Nicolas Reveles). Next was Dana Reitz's Unspoken Territory, done in silence. For it, Baryshnikov wore sandals and a Greek-like, pinkish tunic that feminized him. So you go from male – the Chaconne, where you are looking at his bare arms in a sleeveless T-shirt and letting the dance come out his arms – to the female Unspoken Territory, in which he sometimes does sexy poses, hands dropped down and head coyly tilted like Clara Bow.
Baryshnikov has always valued juxtaposition and changing roles, but what is revealed in these solos is his facility for changing shape in the middle of making a shape. In Unspoken Territory, he turns his back to us and sits down with one leg out to the side, knee bent. His head is a sphere on top of a rectangular box with an adjacent triangle – as cold, remote, technical and grand as a Calder mobile. Then he turns his head and bites his nails. The audience laughs, though Baryshnikov has not played it for a laugh. His focus is on making the dance dance, making it plausible – not about him as a personality, but about him as a line, a shape that can humanize or abstract.
He also performed Kraig Patterson's Tryst, which called attention to his feet – the dancers' walk of rolling through the metatarsus – and which best brought out his joyousness. The evening came to a poignant close with Heartbeat: mb, an inspiration of Christopher Janney, who devised the mechanism that fit over Baryshnikov's chest and amplified the sound of his muscles and pulse. By the time he gets to this piece (directed choreographically by Sara Rudner and Twyla Tharp and improvised by Baryshnikov), Baryshnikov has been dancing hard. His pulse is rapid, and yet, whenever he bends over, it slows down and almost stops. Life seems very precious. Samuel Barber's wrenchingly sad and monumental Adagio (second movement) from the “String Quartet” is eventually layered on top of Baryshnikov's pulse, and it is like he is dancing his last dance. When he silent-screams – mouth gaping wide and one hand pressed under his chin – as cliche as it is, it makes you want to cry. The piece ends in total silence, in which you think loud and clear: There is such a difference between craft and art.
That thought also occurred to me big-time during the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company's performance of Fault on February 21 at Veterans Wadsworth Theater, presented (as was Baryshnikov) by the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts. The dancers – particularly the white-haired, delicate powerhouse Kathleen Hermesdorf and the truly transporting Levi Toney, distinguished by a crew cut and the most ardent eyes – worked hard at making sense of the dance. But few of them seemed to be convinced enough by the choreography (directed by Margaret Jenkins and Ellie Klopp) to know how to connect one movement to the next. Fault explored geographic faultlines in the first part, emotional ones in the latter. That was the idea, and although the materials were present for an exquisite production – between the Paul Dresher Ensemble (which handled Alvin Curran and David Lang's dynamic original composition so well) and Jenkins' earnest troupe – Fault never scored more than an academic interest. An idea, even a good one, is never enough. If anyone knows that, it's Mikhail Baryshnikov, and he's one of the few artists who can make you forget it.