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BRANCHING OUT : The White Oak Dance Project Isn't a Step Down, Baryshnikov Says, It's a Step Above

August 05, 1993|LEWIS SEGAL | Lewis Segal is the Times dance writer.

W earing a blue work shirt and blue-gray pants that help intensify the most celebrated blue eyes in ballet, Mikhail Baryshnikov sits in a San Jose hotel suite thoughtfully answering questions about the latest transformation in a career full of dramatic change.

Baryshnikov's 4-year-old White Oak Dance Project comes to the Orange County Performing Arts Center tonight--in a benefit for the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR)--through Saturday. After dates outside of California, it plays the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara Aug. 20 through 22.

Politely impatient with questions about his life in ballet, energetic in describing prospects for the future, Baryshnikov discusses facing the challenge of modern dance at an age (45) when most ballet virtuosi have graduated to character roles.

Question: What exactly is the White Oak Dance Project?

Answer: It's a group of modern dancers who work together from project to project. We started it with just programs by Mark Morris, who was co-founder with myself, and then slowly graduated to different choreographers--though Mark's still participating in the creative aspects of the group.

Q: How has it changed since Los Angeles saw it in 1991?

A: The group has become a little shrunk for different reasons, partly because we have a chamber music ensemble with us now. We revived Hanya Holm's "Jocose," which is (danced) to the Ravel violin and piano sonata, and Mark decided to use string quartets by Henry Cowell (for "Mosaic and United") and Twyla (Tharp) redid her work "Bare Bones," which we had danced together to music by Pergolesi, into a long solo for myself.

We travel as a small group--eight dancers now, including me. We don't have any sponsors, and, financially, it just makes much more sense for us. Ninety percent of our work is commissioned, and we put a lot of money toward development and new productions. That comes out of box office, and if we need additional funds, I am providing them.

Q: Are the satisfactions of this kind of work comparable to those of classical dancing in a big company?

A: Very much so. The last four years have been a joy: a pleasure to work with great dancers, traveling together and sharing our life experiences. It's very important to me. I like to go on the stage and dance, still--very much so--and I dance the choreography of people whom I admire and whose work I consider I understand.

Q: Should we assume that White Oak marks a new direction in your career?

A: I think it's just a continuation. I am a dancer, and I started to accumulate an understanding of modern dance when I was at the peak of my classical career. One day I did "Swan Lake," the next day I worked with Paul (Taylor) and two days later I was working with Twyla or Eliot Feld. For me, there was no difference--no (sense of) stepping up or stepping down or sideways.

It is difficult to totally decode my thought, but modern dance has been my main interest for the last 10 years, ever since I started to work with Martha Graham, Paul, Twyla and Mark. They just opened my eyes to many things. Now there is in a way a renaissance of modern dance--suddenly, it is more respected and discovered.

Not that I just totally dismiss the classical or neoclassical repertory. But I stopped dancing classical works five, six years ago.

I used to dance in big opera houses, and modern dance was always in more intimate spaces. So a lot of people think that for me it is a stepping down, and how can one explain that it's not?

It's a very different experience--like a soprano singing a Puccini opera and then Kurt Weill. For me, it's a different cultural discipline in a way: a democratic attitude toward dance in the movement. I always knew about it, but a lot of people, they don't, and I don't pay attention to them. I do what I want to do, and this is what I do now.

Q: Is a modern dance repertory physically suited to a classically trained 45-year-old? Any adjustments or compromises?

A: I'm still doing a full-out ballet class every day, and I'm in very good shape. I can do tomorrow some of the classical repertory with ease. It is not a big deal for me, even with the (old) problems with my knee. I don't hold back in the repertoire I am doing now.

But when you work with a creation . . . Twyla perfectly knows what kind of physical problem I have, and if she gives me something that I cannot or am afraid to do, I say, "Twyla, remember it's my right knee and I cannot do this."

Q: Will you discuss the break with American Ballet Theatre four years ago?

A: I'd rather not. They have a new life, and I haven't seen the company for four years. Always when they've had a season, I've been somewhere else.

Q: And newly appointed artistic director Kevin McKenzie?

A: Only time will show. He's a gentleman. At least his reputation is that. Being a gentleman is a positive quality for a director, but running a company is not a human-rights march. That's about all I can say. I never saw his choreography.

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