Anyone who’s skeptical about the stage magnetism of a middle-aged former ballet dancer with a bad knee should get right over to the Joyce Theater for a look at Mikhail Baryshnikov, who’ll be appearing three more times as a special guest during Ballet Tech’s spring season. In Mr. XYZ, choreographed for him by the company’s artistic director, Eliot Feld, Baryshnikov plays codger, hoofer, fading star, and slapstick romantic all at once, reveling in that instinct for American showbiz that Twyla Tharp first teased out of him in Push Comes to Shove. If you loved his ballet career, or missed it entirely, never mind. What’s clear now is that Baryshnikov is one of our great physical comedians.
He starts the piece just leaning on a cane, every inch the geezer in sunglasses, suspenders, and straw hat. Then he lights into a determined stomp, accompanied by the suave growl of Leon Redbone singing “My Walking Stick.” Images from past roles flicker by—Apollo’s lute, the Prodigal Son’s stick. But this crotchety figure full of rhythm wants to dance, not reminisce. And he’s longing for a partner.
As Redbone starts in on “Lulu’s Back in Town,” a dressmaker’s dummy appears; so Baryshnikov takes her for a hopeful spin around the floor. She’s not too responsive, and a moment later he settles ruefully for an office chair on wheels. (“I Ain’t Got Nobody.”) Now he’s propelling himself across the stage sitting up, lying flat, facing backward, or arms outflung—whatever it takes for a pas de deux. Once, mournfully, he embraces the backrest.
One of Baryshnikov’s bravura roles was Albrecht, the deceitful lover in Giselle who is nearly danced to death by vengeful female spirits. In the last section of Mr. XYZ he scatters an armful of lilies, the flower associated with Giselle. When a line of ballerinas appears, it’s as if those female spirits have returned—though they’re preening and sashaying: They’ve shown up for a good time, not a high-art tragedy. Blissfully he rolls in his chair from one dancer to the next, each giving him a gentle spin. Now, at last, he’s ready for his exit. Off he rolls without a backward glance, just a tiny wave goodbye, while Redbone sings “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.” Are you kidding? Try stopping us.