White Oak Dance Project – Chacony, The Experts, Early Floating, Largo

Baryshnikov’s back, baby, and he’s lookin’ real good. The almost legendary dancer (who, by the way, is Latvian, not Russian-born) has performed with most of the great companies of the world, from Kirov, Russia, where he began, to New York City, where he ended up. Then, at an age when most people would be thinking about hanging up the old dancing shoes, he and the innovative choreographer Mark Morris founded the White Oak Dance Project to showcase the work of contemporary dance-makers. It also became a showcase for Mischa, as he is affectionately known to his friends and the press, and it has been his principal performing venue for more than a decade.

Now the theory behind White Oak is that of an ensemble. No stars. But, let’s face it, good as all the other dancers are, who do we really come to see? And sometimes, in the past, the public got less of its idol than it bargained for. Like the piece where he sits on a chair and just stares out at the house. Or the one that involves his taking his coat, shirt and shoes on and off ad infinitum. All interspersed with works in which he did not appear at all. But, at the age of 52, Baryshnikov is again dancing – really dancing – and he looks as good as ever. The White Oak program that opened at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall Thursday night held four works and he danced in every one. It was like a glorious feast after a long famine.

The program opened with a solo, Lucinda Childs’ elegant elegiac Largo, that called up a strong sense of 9/11. Baryshnikov, dressed in a loose black suit with a white T-shirt, moved to the music of Arcangelo Corelli with a grace and power that left a feeling of ineffable sadness. It was breathtaking.

Childs is the most balletic of the choreographers showcased and the final work, also by her, called up feelings of Balanchine. Chacony, which Childs choreographed this year to music of Benjamin Britten, is an abstract work for the full company of seven. It begins in a lighthearted vein, with the dancers criss-crossing and making interesting patterns on the stage. The music, a “Burlesque” from the String Quartet No. 3 and “Tarantella” from the Sinfonietta, is lively and so is the mood. Then, with the “Chacony Sostenuto” from the Second String Quartet, things turn more serious. Two couples at a time dance and then are joined by the ensemble. Baryshnikov enters toward the end. Everyone else exits and he keeps looking around as if to say, “Where did they all go?” Then he dances another one of Childs’ arresting solo turns. And when he stops, he just looks out at the audience as the curtain comes down. It is a “Wow!” moment.

In between the Child works, things were a little more typical of White Oak experimentalism. Erick Hawkins’ Early Floating is set under a wonderful Calderesque mobile, designed by Ralph Dorazio. Stripes of color in the dancers’ old-fashioned men’s bathing suit costumes echo the colors in the mobile. Although Baryshnikov also appeared in this dance, as one of a trio, the star was Emily Coates, the lone female dancer. Where the men spent a lot of time in poses reminiscent of statues of Greek athletes, she was all softness and turns, except in one portion where the movement turned angular and ritualistic, like some ancient sorceress performing a rite.

The Experts, set by Sarah Michelson to a Mike Iveson, Jr. electronic score that included birdcalls and the roar of an automobile engine, was a perplexing bit of comic relief. A bunch of clueless characters, some of them bizarrely dressed, lounge or run or gyrate across the stage while a video of a yellow racing car plays endlessly overhead. There is a wonderful leap-filled duet for Rosalynde LeBlanc and Jennifer Howard. Baryshnikov, wearing a sheer black skirt with his hands inexplicably tied together, does a jerky St. Vitus Dance kind of turn. Coates, this time decked out as a latter day Little Bo Peep, whispers encouragement to him every time he yells out. Another guy wears a black superhero suit with “Love” written on one side and “War” on the other and a whole bunch of other stuff on the sleeves, all topped off with a set of huge red butterfly wings (choreographer Michelson also did the costumes with Tanya Uhlmann).

Near the end, a song begins playing. The refrain is: “All I have to do is ask the experts.” Well, if I asked the experts about this dance, I suspect I still wouldn’t have a clue as to what it meant (which may be the true meaning after all). I do know one thing: it was wildly entertaining.

San Francisco, CA
Suzanne Weiss wanted to be a ballerina with all her heart, but the rest of her body was not equipped to go along with the program so she became a critic instead. Covering dance, theater and music for various papers in Chicago and the Bay Area has kept her on her toes for the past 25 years.