- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 2, 2000

Mikhail Nikolaevitch Baryshnikov — the syllables roll out with the splendid sound of a character in a Tolstoy novel.

Or "Misha" — the name he is called by many Americans, with their national predilection for instant intimacy.

The great Russian dancer, who will receive the Kennedy Center Honors award this month, answers to both. At age 52, he has spent half his life in the United States.

When he defected to the West 26 years ago, he already was a star in the then-Soviet Union. He joined American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and soon was considered the most perfect classical dancer in the world with his uncommon blend of refinement and virtuosity.

He defected again four years later, this time to join George Balanchine's New York City Ballet. The dancer, who was at the height of his powers and a superstar with legions of admirers, became a novice again.

"I went back to school, learning from Balanchine and Jerome Robbins," he says. "That for me was an extraordinary push. It opened my eyes to so many things, and who I am now is very much their responsibility. Some pieces I danced better, some pieces I danced worse, but that was not the point."

Eagerness for the quest has been the hallmark of his entire career. He never has settled for the easy path.

An invitation to become artistic director of ABT in 1978 was a challenge he could not resist. He spent almost a decade there, extending the company's range with his own discoveries of new, sometimes experimental works while setting new high standards for its dancing.

At the same time at ABT, he also continued performing the great classic roles with consummate grace and understanding — Albrecht in "Giselle," Prince Siegfried in "Swan Lake" and Solor in "La Bayadere." Commissions by modern dancer Twyla Tharp gave him parts that expanded his range, especially in "Push Comes to Shove" and "Sinatra Suite."

All the while, he was reaching a far larger nationwide audience. He turned into a matinee idol in films — "The Turning Point" and "White Nights" — and in a series of television specials. Mr. Baryshnikov became the unofficial spokesman for dance and spoke and appeared at all kinds of functions. A very private person, he bore most of it with good grace.

Then, a decade ago, he took a sharply different turn. He teamed up with modern-dance choreographer Mark Morris to form the White Oak Project, an unusual and amorphous dance collective that works from project to project.

In the early days, most of the choreography for White Oak was supplied by Mr. Morris, who still contributes to the company. Through the years, though, White Oak has performed modern dance classics by Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham and Hanya Holm. It also has done new works created for Mr. Baryshnikov by Mr. Robbins, Miss Tharp and a host of young talent that he fostered, including Kevin O'Day and Kraig Patterson.

White Oak operates very much as a collective. It has had members with important careers behind them, such as Rob Besserer and Kate Johnson, who came from the Paul Taylor Company, as well as young performers.

In the beginning, Mr. Baryshnikov joked that people might think it had turned into a "glue factory," a collection of older dancers he had assembled as he aged. In recent years, however, he has surrounded himself with relative youngsters.

Although Mr. Baryshnikov may think of his group as an ensemble, the highlights of its programs in the past decade have been his own concentrated performances.

He enthralled audiences a few years ago with a solo created for him by Mr. Robbins. He was dressed in red and moved with his inimitable sense of timing and phrasing while a cellist accompanied him on stage playing a Bach suite.

More recently, he mesmerized viewers as he moved with sensors taped to his body and danced to his own heartbeat.

The path Mr. Baryshnikov has taken is in striking contrast to the one chosen by that other famous defector, his countryman Rudolf Nureyev. Although Mr. Nureyev had some of the same interest in finding the new — he also danced with Martha Graham and Paul Taylor — he never could bear to give up the great classical roles.

Mr. Baryshnikov relinquished those roles without a backward glance. For one thing, he told me back when he was dancing them, "If tomorrow I stop dancing forever, I will maybe be the happiest person because I did everything, and maybe for one fellow it's enough in his life — those things which I did. Maybe I will stop dancing very soon."

That was 21 years ago.

Instead, Mr. Baryshnikov discovered the vitality of modern dance, the propelling force of the post-Balanchine era. Ballet companies are dipping into that pool: ABT has commissioned a work from Mr. Taylor to have its premiere this spring; Mr. Morris has made several dances for the San Francisco Ballet; and Miss Tharp recently created large ballets for both the New York City Ballet and ABT.

Mr. Baryshnikov, however, has left the semblance of ballet behind him and plunged deeply and exclusively into contemporary dance — modern, postmodern, whatever you want to call it.

When he was at the top of his game — as a classical dancer, when he was performing as close to human perfection as we're ever likely to see — he already had revealed himself as an artist who went way beyond technical perfection. He also brought an inquiring mind; his thought processes were an integral part of his magnificent performances.

"As a young dancer, I had a quite developed, secure technique, but my sense of style was often appalling," he wrote at the time. "I now know that style is what gives blood and color to the bone of the piece, the technique. It is of the utmost importance to work very hard to make technique and style one."

That penetrating search for the essence of style — which enabled him, as he said, to shape a step such as sauts de basque differently when dancing "Don Quixote," "Coppelia" or "The Flames of Paris" — has stood him in good stead as he has pursued not only the different style, but the whole different aesthetic of the work he is doing now.

His latest adventure with White Oak was seen here last month at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium when Mr. Baryshnikov brought a program with a singular focus. Sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society, the evening was titled "PastForward."

Mr. Baryshnikov has been touring the country with this program, a collection of works intended to capture the wildly creative, iconoclastic movement known as Judson Church, named for the location of its performances in lower Manhattan.

The program has a certain irony. Because of Mr. Baryshnikov's tour, more people probably have seen the work of the Judson artists than when the choreography was being created and performed by artists such as Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, David Gordon, Lucinda Childs and Deborah Hay.

The Judson movement made at least two forays into Washington, shaking up the then-fusty town. A major show took place here in 1963 at a roller-skating rink, with artists including Mr. Gordon, Miss Rainer and Robert Rauschenberg participating.

A few years later, Miss Rainer, Steve Paxton and others showed their work at the Smithsonian Institution and caused a ruckus when they complained that the authorities would not let them perform nude with American flags tied around their necks.

Mr. Baryshnikov's Judson program is an interesting attempt to recapture some of their spirit and bring to a brand-new audience their dry wit and rebellious, anti-establishment thrust.

His latest experiment is typical of the curiosity and just plain fun Mr. Baryshnikov is having as he continues his lifelong journey, finding new facets in the world of dance as he goes.



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