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DANCE REVIEW : Misha's Inspired Modernism


Once upon a time, even in deepest, darkest Los Angeles, ballet companies played to specialist audiences in huge auditoriums. Most of the companies came from New York, of course. Meanwhile, modern dance held forth, to the delight of smaller specialist audiences, in intimate halls.

Then came the so-called dance boom. Then came a couple of revolutionary superstars who disregarded conventional barriers while courting the masses. Then came the recession.

Now the Joffrey Ballet goes slumming with rock music and schlock choreography in a desperate, apparently successful, effort to remain a popular force in American culture. Now Mikhail Baryshnikov, last of the magnetic leaping heroes, is escorting a tiny company of modern dancers to big theaters around the country, and, for some reason, steadfastly avoiding New York in the process.

Friday night, the 45-year-old firebrand, who has forsworn old-fashioned princely bravura in favor of newfangled adventure, introduced a splendid mini-ensemble from his White Oak Project in Florida to an admiring throng at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The result was a happy evening of quirky revelations.

Baryshnikov never was an artist given to compromises. He never courted easy effects, never cheated, never succumbed to vulgar temptations. He never begged for cheers in return for merely showing up. This was true when he danced in "Giselle," and it was true when he embarked on what some misguided purists regarded as unholy alliances with progressive pioneers.

No matter where his need for novelty drove him, he always managed to sustain his integrity, his good taste and an indomitable sense of elegance. He also brought along his endearingly mercurial wit, a quality that never had been particularly useful when he impersonated the nobly tragic Albrechts and Siegfrieds. On occasion he even indicated a willingness, as surprising as it was refreshing, to indulge in self-mockery.

The current White Oak program (which moves on to a three-day stand at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Thursday) represents the modern Misha at his most beguiling. It offers a provocative, discerning, stimulating mix of the new and the not-quite-new. It casts Baryshnikov as dedicated team player as well as stellar attraction. It reflects his lofty artistic standards even when he doesn't happen to be on stage.

The latest Misha show dares to think small. It doesn't bother much with fancy decors. And, unlike most comparable endeavors these days, it even dares to take the musical elements seriously. Instead of a taped soundtrack blasted via too-loud loudspeakers, it employs a live, fiscally as well as aesthetically sound, quintet that works the pit in various combinations and permutations.

The official agenda lists major pieces by one historical figure in modern dance, the late Hanya Holm, and two gutsy contemporary icons, Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris (the latter a co-founder of White Oak). On Friday, Baryshnikov added two minor bonuses: Morris' "Three Preludes," and "White Man Sleeps," a duet marking the choreographic debut of Kevin O'Day.

"Three Preludes," which opened the program, was created as a Gershwinesque vehicle for Morris himself, and the poetic hulk first performed it in Boston a year ago. Baryshnikov no doubt brings a lighter and brighter persona to the severely stylized, tongue-in-cheeky song-and-dance routines.

Slick and dapper in white gloves and socks that virtually make the rest of his body disappear, he slinks and slides, dips and soars, tips and taps his irresistible way through seven minutes of classy, carefully regimented funk. In this highly sophisticated case, the old soft shoe really fits.


The greatest revelation of the evening came next, with the revival of Holm's "Jocose." The choreographer, who died last year at age 99, is best known, perhaps, for the dances in "My Fair Lady," "Kiss Me Kate" and "Camelot." She was a disciple of the German Expressionist Mary Wigman, however, and a vital, original, influential force far beyond Broadway.

She set "Jocose" on the Don Redlich Company--two movements in 1981 and the third, when she was over 90, in 1984. This sprightly, witty piece, an extraordinarily sensitive setting of Ravel's bluesy violin sonata, hardly suggests the work of an old woman. Sometimes sassy and loose-limbed, always fluid and lyrical, it pits two men against three women in a neatly intricate game of love, war and who-gives-a-damn bravado. It looks astonishingly modern, even in the brutal light of 1993.

The enlightened White Oak quintet--Rob Besserer, Nancy Colahan, Kate Johnson, Marianne Moore and O'Day--danced it with telling individuality and fleet charm that masked muscular brio. Diane Duraffourg, violin, and Michael Boriskin, piano, tended deftly to the complementary needs of Ravel.

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