Mikhail Baryshnikov’s recent appearance at the City Center in his first American solo concert was touted in advance as a significant landmark in the 50-year-old star’s career. For once, publicity didn’t lie. Over the years, this incomparable artist has pierced our consciousness in an extraordinary succession of roles: the Kirov-trained wunderkind; the daring defector; the American Ballet Theatre principal who combined sensational virtuosity with sublime classicism; the disciple of Balanchine at the New York City Ballet; the hero of films that owed their existence to his charisma; the artistic director who put ABT back on the path of purity; the explorer of modern dance who created the White Oak Dance Project, a chamber group that foisted a rigorous repertory in that genre on the masses avid to see “Misha” in anything he chose to grace. Onstage alone at the City Center – with only some musical interludes to spell him – Baryshnikov seemed to sum up his extraordinary artistic saga and, what’s more, suggest that a man alone can represent the world.
The richer the choreography, of course, the more persuasive Baryshnikov can be. Mark Morris’s Three Russian Preludes showed him as a man working and thinking – in the isolation, essential to the human condition, that most of us refuse to recognize. It also showed him off as a dancer who has lost none of his mastery of precision, mood, focus, swift shifts in dynamics, and eloquent stillness. José Limón’s Chaconne, choreographically as compelling as the Morris piece, was more foreign to Baryshnikov’s native body language. The ballet-trained dancer gave it a marvelous personal rendition – translating, for example, Limón’s signature gesture of arms masterfully swooping to crown the head into the more delicate and sensual port de bras of Le Spectre de la Rose – but he couldn’t help fragmenting the flow of the dance into sharp, discrete images, ballet-style. Kraig Patterson’s Tryst is a slighter work, relying too much on loose movement in the extremities without activating the center of the body. Baryshnikov lent it the boyish charm of a fellow embarking on a blind date, unsure of his appeal – which anyone else can see is devastating. Much was made of a gimmicky number, originated by Christopher Janney and Sara Rudner, here called HeartBeat: mb, because this version incorporates movement devised and improvised by Baryshnikov. The performer is linked to a contraption that amplifies his cardiac activity, and you’re supposed to think, “I am alone with the beating of my heart.” The rest of the concert conveyed just that, in far more complex and poignant ways.