Dance review: Baryshnikov at the Broad Stage
Dancing at 61 a contemporary program titled “Three Solos and a Duet,” Mikhail Baryshnikov doesn't make it easy on himself -- or his audience.
Opening the second year of the intimate Broad Stage in Santa Monica, he refuses to take refuge in narcissistic nostalgia for his reign decades ago as the world's premier ballet virtuoso. Indeed, in a newly refocused edition of Benjamin Millepied's “Years Later” (a piece that Santa Barbara audiences saw in 2006), he dances along with films of himself at the start of his career, confronting with rueful humor all the feats no longer possible, but also -- through interaction with new video sequences -- challenging himself to reach his greatest current potential.
The Saturday performance proved that what he still has is enviable. One of France's gifts to New York City Ballet, Millepied knows that every dancer looks in the mirror every day to assess new realities. But what if that mirror were a window on the past -- or a vision of personal ambitions in human form? Using music by Phillip Glass and projections by Asa Mader, he and Baryshnikov make self-realization into high drama, with a suggestion at the very end that when the process becomes obsessive, it's time to quit.
In contrast, choreographers from Russia and Sweden show Baryshnikov as a master storyteller. In Alexei Ratmansky's whimsical “Valse-Fantaisie,” the story is about the creation of Mikhail Glinka's score: a tale of love lost but understanding eventually won. There are movement jokes juxtaposing traditional ballet-mime with streetwise gestures -- passages that showcase Baryshnikov's fabulous use of his hands. And there are plenty of high-velocity ballet steps that melt into nonchalance or switch into twisty modernism and call for absolute precision. They get it, brilliantly.
In the first half of the program, Baryshnikov makes fleeting appearances in an excerpt from Mats Ek's “Solo for Two,” serving as a kind of phantom or memory as Ana Laguna traces a harrowing cycle of deep, wild grieving. At 54, Laguna is not only Ek's wife but the touchstone of his quirky, emotional movement style, which ricochets from swirling, poetic statements of overwhelming loss to sudden, all-too-human gestural oddities: wiping her nose, for example, or scratching her behind. Stockholm knows her unconventional artistry well, but some of us are just discovering it.
The music by Arvo Pärt bathes Laguna in lyric splendor, but she stays indomitably eccentric, out of control and as scary as she is touching. A terrific showpiece for a dancing actress -- and, after intermission, Ek's extended duet “Place” asks Baryshnikov to match her twitch for twitch, joining her to embody a relationship marked by moments of mutual dependency but also outbursts of dangerous fury.
The use of a table, a carpet (or groundcloth), three tall light stands and music by Fläskkvartetten define the episodes in their life and the changing environments in which their interplay evolves.
Putting his dancers on the table, under the table, on the carpet, under the carpet, Ek makes physical demands as unusual and often fearsome as the expressive requirements of the duet. And the audience too has a part to play, since the piece jump-cuts from a happy, playful, sexy partnership to sardonic (Laguna), volcanic (Baryshnikov) isolation. It holds together through its bold, restless urgency but offers no easy answers. And that can frustrate some spectators.
Reflecting its own history and traditions, modern European ballet is a genre often scorned by the American dance establishment. But in his latest artistic incarnation, Baryshnikov plunges into it with the high intelligence, superb movement skills and full-out commitment that have marked every stage of his career. We should all age so gracefully.
-- Lewis Segal
Video: Baryshnikov and Laguna in "Place," the final piece in the program "Three Solos and a Duet." Photo: a frame from the video. Credit: Myung J. Chun and Don Kelsen/Los Angeles Times.