Just Saying No

Knot enough: White Oak members, including Mikhail Baryshnikov (second from left), in John Jasperse's See Through Knot.Photo: Steven Caras

“No to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic and make-believe no to the glamour and transcendency of the star image no to the heroic no to the anti-heroic no to trash imagery no to involvement of performer or spectator no to style no to camp no to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer no to eccentricity no to moving or being moved.” Yvonne Rainer’s declaration served as a manifesto for the revolutionary postmodern movement emerging from the experiments of the Judson Dance Theater in the early sixties. Obviously, the statement says no the glories and the wiles of classical ballet and thus to everything Mikhail Baryshnikov, that paradigm of the genre, once stood for. Ten years ago, however, Baryshnikov put the ballet behind him and founded the White Oak Dance Project. This compact, ad hoc touring group brings often difficult modern and postmodern works out of their relative obscurity to a broad audience lured by Baryshnikov’s genius for movement and, of course, by his personal magnetism and fame. This fall, White Oak will present a full program of work, old and new, by Judson choreographers. For his group’s recent engagement at bam – easily the most compelling event of the season – Baryshnikov commissioned a piece from the nay-saying Rainer, who had left the dance world a quarter-century ago to make films.

The Rainer creation, wryly titled After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, is a collage of excerpts from her early work, some revised for the new context, all of them reframed by it. Its highlights include a brief turn for an amazingly sensuous Baryshnikov with a sultry evening gown attached to the front of his body, a red ball suggestively dropping from his hand; a passage in which busily clustering dancers rush pillows to cushion parts of each other’s bodies, even if the foot or arm in question is encountering nothing more abrasive than air; and a tour de force solo in which Michael Lomeka, moving with lushness and ferocity, recites Nabokov’s disquisition on the metamorphosis of caterpillar into butterfly.

Regrettably, the overall effect of the piece was tame – gently absurdist, charming, amusing. Surely this is not what Rainer had (or has) in mind. But the tenets and discoveries of Judson have been so thoroughly absorbed by subsequent postmodern dance that no retrospective of Rainer’s groundbreaking investigations can now hope to startle or challenge. One can only view her present piece with the affection, pleasantly tinged with melancholy, that belongs to nostalgia.

Far more vitality emanated from two works by Trisha Brown, another seminal Judsonite, who gradually learned to accommodate the luxuries and indulgences of traditional lyric theater and give them her own sly twist. Brown’s 1979 Glacial Decoy, a quartet for women, says yes to scenic investiture. Robert Rauschenberg’s plainspoken black-and-white photographs, with nary a human in sight, parade across four giant upstage screens; his glorious white gowns pair the strictness of crisp pleating with the sensuous bliss of buoyant billowing. These elements don’t merely serve the piece as decoration; they’re integral to it.

Brown’s choreography, which was her first for a conventional proscenium space, teases our assumptions about the boundaries of that frame. Instead of holding firm, they appear to shift in an attempt to contain the action. The basic conventions of proscenium theater – such as putting the most important stuff dead center – are subverted at the same time. Brown often chooses to leave the middle blank while animating the edges with irresistible happenings. Predictably, the White Oak dancers fail to achieve the uncanny looseness and fluency of Brown’s own people in this material; they’re too tightly strung and possibly overrehearsed. But they work earnestly, with the enormous physical intelligence that seems to be the prime requirement for a place in Baryshnikov’s entourage.

Earlier, more didactic Brown was represented by Homemade, a solo performed by Baryshnikov with a cumbersome film projector strapped to his back. From the machine, views of him doing this very dance are intermittently focused on the dark backcloth of the otherwise empty stage. The little piece poses a fairly trite question, which it mischievously leaves unresolved: Which image is more compelling – the photographed or the in-the-flesh? Resurrecting the piece might have been a dry exercise in historicism, but Baryshnikov, whose performing gifts have always extended to mime, floods it with life by projecting a series of contrasting moods as he goes about his two-part task of subjecting himself to our scrutiny.

True to White Oak’s commitment to encourage present-day postmodern choreographers, the program included a new John Jasperse dance, See Through Knot, for the two men of the group and three of its women. Workmanlike and utterly forgettable, the piece serves up the choreographer’s typical nuzzlings, slitherings, and cantileverings and his perennial subtext of homosexual sex and incipient violence that, here, is held circumspectly in check. Jasperse seems more genuine in his most recent work for his own company, where he is entirely self-indulgent.

Peccadillos, a solo for Baryshnikov by Mark Morris, who provided a good part of White Oak’s early repertory, proved once again the richness of Morris’s invention and the felicity of the Mark-and-Misha collaboration. The dance opens with a joke about the fad for ballets with onstage piano accompaniment, the pianist Ethan Iverson, dour in dress and expression, seating himself at a toy instrument to play three delectable pieces by Satie. In a series of sprightly variations, Baryshnikov sometimes appears to be a toy himself, perhaps one animated by a windup mechanism. Alternately he is a child, alone with his playthings in a paradise of the imagination where he is lord and master. Balanchine’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges and The Steadfast Tin Soldier both come to mind as Peccadillos spreads its aura of precious enchantment, all the while revealing the terrible fragility of innocence. Despite the pitfalls of its subject matter, the piece is neither coy or cloying but rather filled with wit, wonder, and exuberant spirit. In its penultimate segment, it becomes near-tragic. Baryshnikov moves with sudden frantic desperation, straight at the pianist, as if he were asking, Is childhood over? Is the dream shattered, the toys broken, the music stopped? Because of its brevity and simplicity and the lightness of its touch, Peccadillos might, I suppose, be labeled a miniature. But I think applying this term would be recklessly misleading.

Just Saying No