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COVER STORY

Stretching His Legs Creatively

At 49, Mikhail Baryshnikov works hard to pursue the rigors of dance, and the best part is he can now do it on his own terms.

March 06, 1997|ELIZABETH ZIMMER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — A lot of guys who work for 30 years, reach the pinnacle of their profession, achieve icon status, make pots of money and sustain disabling injuries in the line of duty would retire. They'd make cameo appearances, relax, travel.

Mikhail Baryshnikov is not a lot of guys. In 1990, at the age of 42, having resigned as artistic director of American Ballet Theatre in New York, the emigre Russian ballet superstar threw himself--bad knees and all--into a small, touring modern dance company, White Oak Dance Project. The idea was to encounter what was crucial in the art form, to do as much as he could, but only what he liked--to dance on his own terms.

With White Oak, he says, "we're trying to stretch our muscles creatively. It gives us so much more freedom."

Days after his 49th birthday in January, in preparation for the company's 1997 tour, Baryshnikov is literally stretching some muscles--his own--as he lies on the floor of a rehearsal studio at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

The cherubic face that long ago appeared on the cover of Time magazine is furrowed now and adorned with a goatee, but the piercing blue eyes, tousled blond hair and startling widow's peak still punctuate his intelligent expression.

Though he is the boss, he works alongside the White Oak dancers and must keep his aging instrument in tune. He spends two hours a day with his physical therapist, and one feature of the bare studio is a massage table. On the upcoming tour (which arrives at the Wiltern Theatre today), he will dance in all three offerings.

Still, the fact that he stays on his feet, dancing, isn't something Baryshnikov dwells on. His pleasure in the White Oak enterprise lies as much in summoning the work of others. He drafts the best dancers; he is patron to startling young choreographers, and he is a dance missionary, bringing unusual work, new and old, to audiences who pack performances primarily because of his very famous name.

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At a White Oak rehearsal, there's no trace of Baryshnikov the celebrity or even the patron/producer. With all nine members of the company in place, what is on the agenda one recent morning is "Remote," commissioned from Meg Stuart, an American choreographer best known in Europe. ("I was looking for people," Baryshnikov says. "I asked her to send me some tapes. I sort of fell in love with the work.")

For 45 minutes, Stuart, a small woman in bright blue pants, moves the troupe through the still-evolving piece. It's all asymmetrical postures, impulses bouncing from one dancer to the other, with a distinct nod toward chaos. The score, by Eleanor Hovda, will be performed live (as is all White Oak's music, by a string ensemble that tours with the company); its set, with photographic projections of industrial landscapes, is by Canadian artist Bruce Mau.

As the work unfolds, Baryshnikov is just part of the pack. Fully attentive, he never says a word. Despite the stop and go of rehearsal, he always keeps moving, so that his middle-aged muscles won't seize up.

"Remote" is one of a handful of works White Oak is preparing. On the L.A. program there's also Merce Cunningham's "Septet," with Baryshnikov dancing the part that Cunningham choreographed for himself in 1953. And there is another brand-new piece: the posthumous premiere of Erick Hawkins' "Journey of a Poet." Hawkins, one of modern dance's most influential pioneers and the head of his own company for more than half a century, died in 1994, but not before creating the piece expressly for Baryshnikov.

How "Journey" made its own journey to the stage three years after Hawkins' death nicely illustrates how White Oak works.

Hawkins, Baryshnikov says, "used to come and see me dance; he asked me to do something with his company. He choreographed 'Journey of a Poet' as a surprise present to me, and then he died. A couple of months later, Lucia [Dlugoszweski, Hawkins' wife and longtime collaborator] called; she's composing music.

"But I realized I couldn't do it, it [was] 25 minutes, for a superman, somebody young and strong--and it was really a shame to cut it. So I had an idea to do it as a group piece, bringing in a support team. A few of Erick's dancers worked with us, bringing patterns from other work, trying to figure out what he would have done with a group without changing this piece."

Why work so hard at getting it on stage? " 'Journey,' " Baryshnikov says, "is not like anything else. It's beautiful and simple; childlike, almost, but there's a Zen aspect, like back to the bicycle."

When Baryshnikov isn't touring--White Oak is on the road, mostly outside of the United States, about six months every year--he shares a house on the Hudson River, an hour north of New York City, with former ABT dancer Lisa Rinehart and their three children. (His oldest daughter, Alexandra, lives in Kentucky with her mother, actress Jessica Lange, and Sam Shepard.)

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