His body looks sculpted by Praxiteles, his thick blond hair is youthfully tousled, and he commands the stage like a star.
He’s Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, and he’s fifty-four years old.
“Misha” seemed ageless in his appearance with the White Oak Dance Project at Zellerbach Hall last weekend – not that time hasn’t altered the golden glow of his youth to a mellower shade. His dancing isn’t as breathtaking as it once was, but it’s wiser, humbler, deeper.
Baryshnikov is no longer showing off. He’s showing up, to tell us, with the authority of a master, what he’s learned.
And that’s a lot. One thing he has learned is to be a thorough team player. He and Mark Morris co-founded the White Oak Project twelve years ago to showcase modern dancers and modern dance choreographers. They meant it to be a collaboration, and among the company of eight at Cal Performances, Baryshnikov displayed a winning grace in blending with his co-performers.
It was dance, not the dancers, that mattered.
Of course Baryshnikov had star moments; we’d be disappointed if he didn’t. The first was a bracing solo in Lucinda Childs’ “Largo.” If modern dance ranges from more “classical” modes to off-the-wall, Childs is a classicist, serving up relaxed but meticulously designed fare. An elegant exploration of space set to a lush interpretation of Corelli, “Largo” sent its protagonist on a journey of thoughtful turns and deliberately reaching arms, punctuated by stirring stillnesses as he girded himself to set out time and again.
The work might be an emblem for Baryshnikov. In easygoing black jacket and loose Gene Kelly-ish pants, he offered exhilarating proof of undiminished grace.
Next came Eric Hawkins classic 1961 “Early Floating,” in which a trio of men and a woman (Baryshnikov, Zane Booker, Roger Jeffrey, Emily Coates) make their moves under a colorful Calder-like stabile whose angles seem to be.
a template for colorful abstractions. The crystalline lightness of Lucia Dlugoszeswki’s tinkly, percussive score spins wires of sound for charged calisthenics, bodhisattva poses and slo-mo rushes. “Early Floating” offers up
relationships that are coolly self-possessed yet amusingly fresh, and if modern dance pioneer Hawkins, who died in 1994, was looking down, he was surely pleased at the homage.
But how to describe what came next? Sarah Michelson’s “The Experts” tried so hard to be off the wall that it ended up falling flat. Performed on a giant sheet of bubble-wrap, its goofy moves were punctuated by a constant popping crackle, while a racecar kept whining overhead. The costumes were from cuckoo-land: one dancer in pedal pushers, another in butterfly wings, a third in a gauzy skirt, a fourth in a jock strap, a fifth looking like a bad-taste Bo Peep. Why? The music featured twittering birds, while the motley tribe on stage wiggled motorized hips and uttered longing cries. In one sequence their flopping arms attempted flight, but the poor things never come near getting off the ground.
Fortunately the concluding work, Lucinda Child’s “Chacony,” got off the ground nicely, thank you. Six dancers – Miguel Anaya, Emily Coates, Jennifer Howard, Roger Jeffrey, Sonja Kostich and Rosalynde LeBlanc – held the stage for a quarter of an hour to a prickly Benjamin Britten score. They were a sextet of busily striding pedestrians who turned self-possessed into a cool transcendence as they peeled off from the crowd and turned and mingled in serene yet spirited combinations.
At the end they left the stage to Baryshnikov, who performed a touching coda that featured tentative leaps, as if he’d lost his way. Not a chance, though.
Last month’s Bay Area dance news may have been prima ballerina Joanna Berman’s retirement in her mid-thirties, but Baryshnikov spells out a different story. In his fifties he’s still going strong, and it’s a gift to watch him show us how dance is done.