Tucson Weekly . Volume 12, Number 9 . May 11 - May 17, 1995

BARYSHNIKOV BALLYHOO: The Mikhail Baryshnikov bash last week was one of the odder modern dance spectacles this town has seen.

Not that the dancing by Baryshnikov and the stellar performers of his White Oak Dance Project wasn't superb. It was. Not that it wasn't a delight to hear live musicians accompanying the dancers on strings and piano, or to see an eclectic offering of modern dance choreographed by the likes of Twyla Tharp, Mark Morris, Tere O'Connor and Joachim Schlomer.

No, what was disquieting was the hollow movie-star quality of the whole shebang. The exorbitant ticket prices. The huckstering of Baryshnikov souvenirs in the lobby. The hooting and hollering and standing ovations lavished on the famous superstar, and not on the other dancers.

Except for the telltale jewels and elegant black clothes marking the audience as high-rent, high-brow arts consumers, they could have been giddy teenagers at a rock concert. No doubt about it, Baryshnikov is the most famous dancer in America, if not the world. And his fans were there to see that famous face and delight in those famous leaps.

Just about any reasonably informed adult, even one who has zero interest in dance, knows that Baryshnikov fled the Soviet Union and went on to find fame and fortune in the lucrative big-dance world of the West. It didn't hurt his following that he has Hollywood-caliber good looks (alas, his famous blonde waves have given way to a trendy buzz cut). Or that he hooked up for a while with actress Jessica Lange. Or even that he made a couple of movies, one of which, Turning Point, 1979, was a hit, and the other, White Nights, 1985, a bomb.

But Baryshnikov is no mere celebrity. Clearly he was and, at age 47, still is a major talent. His passion for dance and his extraordinary physical gifts--especially those pyrotechnical leaps--made him a favorite not only of audiences but of such dance eminences as George Balanchine. Baryshnikov was a principal dancer with Balanchine's prestigious New York City Ballet and was artistic director of American Ballet Theatre for a good chunk of the '80s. And his current work with White Oak Dance Project demonstrates both artistic courage and integrity. If in 1974 he was brave enough to escape the Soviet cultural commissars who routinely stifled artistic innovation, in 1990 he was brave enough to change dance idioms. Risking his ballet popularity by turning to the less popular form of modern dance, he founded White Oak Dance Project, assembled a corps of top modern dancers and started a new artistic life touring and performing challenging modern works.

The hoopla surrounding the concert at the TCC Music Hall last week made that artistic integrity a mite hard to detect. Baryshnikov didn't bother to announce the program ahead of time. He knows that it's his name that will bring the fans in. But, as one local dance aficionado was heard to complain, modern dance is different from ballet: It's less about dance personalities and more about choreographers, less about superstars and more about company teamwork. It borders on arrogance not to tell potential ticket buyers which pieces they're going to see.

That didn't deter me or the hordes of other people who bought tickets--heck, we all wanted to see the most famous dancer in the world. So, instead of the usual half-empty church of the dutiful faithful that modern-dance concerts are in Tucson, we made up a filled-to-the-rafters, genuine, rockin' and rollin' congregation. We even filled up the parking lot at TCC, an unprecedented achievement for modern dance.

Still, it was a temple a tad defiled by the moneychangers--Baryshnikov Tshirts going for $20 and Baryshnikov caps for $12. I had decided to spring for the highest-priced seat--$65--and those 65 big ones got me a seat far back in row T, on the side. It made me wonder where the lower-priced $40 or $55 seats were. Add suspicions of greed to the charges of arrogance.

The audience's single-mindedness didn't do much to alleviate my grumpy skepticism. They were restless during the first piece, Morris' "Mosaic and United," an abstract complex of movements performed by five supremely able dancers. They went nuts when Baryshnikov appeared solo for the next number, Tharp's "Pergolesi," bolting out of their seats for a standing ovation. They turned restive during piece number three, the Misha-less "Greta in the Ditch," a difficult, dissonant work by O'Connor. But they rallied around for the fourth and final number, "Blue Heron," a lovely, near-ballet by Schlomer for nine dancers that had Baryshnikov dancing a secondary role.

In a way, Baryshnikov does modern dance a favor, using his big name to draw in audiences that otherwise might never venture near a Tharp. He showed good sportsmanship by taking a lesser role in "Blue Heron." And if he no longer does the ballet that his fans seem to want, he at least gave them what they paid for, by performing a long solo.

It was his solo that finally won me over, too. Tharp's angular choreography was set to the lush strains of Pergolesi's 16th-century music. A perfect piece for the showman that Baryshnikov is, it started out as an amiable spoof on a dancer's failing abilities. The dancer was all charm and smiles as he teased and tripped, pretending that he just wasn't up to snuff anymore. But by the third movement, all silliness was gone. The grin gave way to a face lost in the wonder of movement, and the false missteps turned into astonishing jumps that defied not only gravity but the march of time itself. Suddenly, the hoopla and the moneychanging, the glitter and the greed, all fell away. What was left was the image of one defiant artist, one superb dancer, who proved that he will not go gently off that good stage, but will continue to soar against the dying of the light.

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