For almost a decade, the White Oak Dance Project has served Mikhail Baryshnikov – its leader and linchpin – as his vehicle into the future. Once the dancer’s high-flying days as a classical-ballet superstar were over, his undiminished appetite for the stage required a new line of choreography, one that would showcase his genius and engage his curiosity while respecting his physical limitations. Since Baryshnikov’s name automatically attracts the audience for sheer charisma and celebrity, the dancer used this advantage to expose such viewers to works of advanced postmodernism that they wouldn’t be caught dead looking at under normal circumstances. This has been taken to be a good thing – for the audience, for the choreographers, and for the art. I’m not so sure it is.
The recent engagement of the group – currently comprising Misha and five women – at the New Victory Theater centered on works by little- or moderately known dance-makers: Karole Armitage, Tamasaburo Bando (the onnagata is, of course, idolized as a performer), Neil Greenberg, Lucy Guerin, and Amy O’Brien. The only household name involved was Mark Morris, who was represented by a startlingly reconfigured version of The Argument. Apart from the Morris and, to some extent, the Greenberg, the dances that were presented are uniformly arid and obscure – not simply unappealing and inaccessible to the general public but essentially limited in what they offer even to the experienced dance lover.
A significant reason for this, I think, is that even the pieces Baryshnikov doesn’t appear in are confined to his present range of movement. Their language consists largely of posture and gesture. There’s a minimum of aerial activity (the jumps and leaps that are ballet’s specialty), of action that takes the body to the floor (a key feature of mid-century modern dance), and of sustained locomotion linked to musical fluency. Working hard, one can pin a meaningful subtext to a couple of the pieces, which helps, but not that much. All in all, the programs seemed to deal more in intellectual concepts than in evocative actions – a state of affairs fatal to theatrical endeavor.
Baryshnikov, with his intense concentration, his diamond cutter’s precision, and his uncanny ability to make a complex inner life visible, was the savior of Greenberg’s dance, MacGuffin or How Meanings Get Lost (Revisited). Apart from a little coda in which the five women appear – merely strategy for making the program cohere – the piece is an extended solo. It meshes an abstract take on the Hitchcock vein of macabre mystery (the score is derived from the background music of Psycho) with a fondly satiric survey of themes dear to modern dance. (Earnestly and beautifully, Baryshnikov executes fragmented moves that may – or may not – illustrate projections on the backdrop such as the dynamics of a relationship and a submission to fate.) MacGuffin is uneven in tone, vague in its objective, and far too long; its dancer makes you all but forget these flaws.
The White Oak version of The Argument, set on Baryshnikov and three women, is vastly different from its Mark Morris Dance Group incarnation, where it is performed – with far more gut-sprung technique – by three male-female couples. White Oak’s staging, with its lone man, inevitably gives rise to a single-sex couple; this is ironic, given the fact that in his own group’s rendition of the piece, Morris, for once, does not insist upon same-sex attraction. What’s more, White Oak’s Argument emphasizes an almost blithe changing of partners rather than the grave psychological state – depicted by Morris’s group – of staying put in a fraught relationship that keeps recycling itself. With White Oak, the goings-on become an almost slapstick ménage à quatre – a bedroom farce without a bed. Even so, The Argument is the only substantial dance in the repertoire that Baryshnikov’s enterprise offered – the only one worth mulling over and the only one worth keeping.