Mikhail Baryshnikov changes his practice clothes three times in an hour and a half. He starts with plush gray sweatpants rolled up to his calves and a blue T-shirt with the White Oak Dance Project logo running along the sleeve. His feet, bulging with veins, are bare and planted firmly on the sprung floor of Trisha Brown’s rehearsal studio. A vertical line cleaving his brow grows deeper and his tongue presses against his upper lip in concentration as he moves methodically through the space. “It’s hard,” he tells dancer Emily Coates, describing the way she needs to jump into his arms. Still not breaking a bead of sweat, he changes his shirt, puts on drawstring pajama pants, and massages his lower back as he waits for his entrance in the difficult passage. He suddenly blurts out, “This piece should be called Mind Fuck!” The five other dancers break out in laughter. By the time they run through the next dance, he’s changed his shirt again.
Ten years ago, Mikhail Baryshnikov started his own modern-dance troupe. Now he is determined never to return to ballet. “There is nothing else in classical dance, no matter what kind of beautiful production they’ll present to me,” he insists. “It just doesn’t do anything anymore.” Now 52, a father of four and Nyack resident, Baryshnikov says his raison d’être still hasn’t changed – “In order to put on a pair of pants in the morning, I have to whip my butt and do something that I’ll remember three months from now” – even if his body, and his vision of the dance that drives him, have. On a typical day, he spends about two hours with his physiotherapist working on his ballet-ruined knees, an hour and a half in warm-up class, and six hours rehearsing with his dancers.
His focus and interest in modern dance, he insists, date to long before he formed White Oak; while still a dancer at the Kirov, he was drawn to the work of the postmodernists at the Village’s Judson Memorial Church in the sixties, to “these women and men with this wild hair and bell-bottom pants and barefoot and that totally free line,” he remembers, who were challenging all of dance’s conventions. Still intrigued by the era, Baryshnikov’s White Oak will present “PastForward” this fall, a project to preserve works from the Judson era as well as commission new works from its alumni. This week at bam, White Oak will perform Glacial Decoy, by Judson alum Trisha Brown; the premieres of two new works, one by Mark Morris and John Jasperse; and Judson legend Yvonne Rainer’s resonantly named After Many a Summer, Dies the Swan. (“When you see people at the peak of their powers,” says Rainer, “you know you’re watching something very fleeting.”)
“Maybe I’ll stop tomorrow,” says Misha. “But as long as I have interesting work … I’ll always somehow be involved … to see how it’s done from scratch, from the idea. There’s nothing better than that.”