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Heart and Solo

The most celebrated dancer of our time is now 50. Mikhail Baryshnikov talks about age, death, how far he's come and his first-ever all-solo dance program.

February 01, 1998|Eleanor Randolph | Eleanor Randolph is a Times staff writer

NEW YORK — Mikhail Baryshnikov enters the City Center dressing room with unexpected modesty. He shakes hands formally, and as he sits, he pulls another chair toward him. Slowly, he lifts his right leg, applies an ice pack under his knee, then rests the whole affair gently on the chair.

"There," he says stiffly. "I'm ready."

As of this rainy afternoon, Baryshnikov has twice danced a new all-solo program--his first ever--in New York. The notices, just published, are raves, echoes of reviews that accompanied much the same show in Europe last fall. The New York Times' Anna Kisselgoff wrote: "If his solo program . . . were not sold out, one would urge all to rush to City Center and see it." Reviewer Clive Barnes opined under this headline: "Mikhail's Brilliance Undimmed."

What all the reviews have focused on is the finale of "An Evening of Music and Dance," a work called "HeartBeat: mb." In it, a bare-chested Baryshnikov dances to the amplified sound of his own heartbeat. The audience can not only see his 50-year-old physique (his birthday was last Monday), it can experience his every pulse. Baryshnikov will bring "HeartBeat," and three other dances, interspersed with musical interludes played by the White Oak Chamber Ensemble, to Los Angeles Saturday.

Onstage, Baryshnikov looks forever young--leaping, turning, bending. Up close he is far different from the boyish man dancing so precisely and elegantly. He has on glasses, his hair is cropped very short, his body seems thin and taut, not the beautifully supple being we have seen on the stage. He is dressed casually--a wheat-colored sweater, loose slacks and therapeutic sandals designed to massage the aching feet of the world's most famous dancer.

Q: Were you pleased this morning? Did you read the reviews?

A: I read, yes--I read [the] New York Times. Yes, very pleased. It's always nice to read positive notices, but if you believe the positive ones, you have to deal with the negative ones.

Q: On opening night here, during "HeartBeat: mb," the audience didn't cough, didn't seem to breathe. They were totally absorbed.

A: It's interesting because I danced this piece in Europe, and the dynamics were different. Americans tend to see it in the beginning like a joke. But it's fun to see. They're just getting into the piece.

It's such a fresh piece for me. You have new routines popping out [he laughs], according to your heartbeat, of course. The second [New York] performance was totally different. The heartbeat was much slower and relaxed.

Q: Yes, on opening night, I thought it couldn't be your heart, it was too fast. People in the audience kept touching their necks to check by comparison.

A: The heart is attached to your emotions and your mental state, and obviously at this performance, I was a bit nervous. No matter that I was not, you know, breathing deeply. Just [to have] one thought at the beginning of the piece is to push your heartbeat up, and it [was] probably about 150 before I did one step, before one single move.

Q: The audience gets inside you in a way.

A: It's an unusual "instrument." When you lie down for a simple cardiology test, you know, you look at those little blue arrows going up and down and this is already a weird feeling--that one thing that actually your heart is producing. Can you imagine a lie detector test? But listening [to] yourself, it is probably even more disturbing than listening to the sound of your voice [on a tape recorder]. It's scary in a way: It's me--no, it couldn't be me. It's the technology which has really transformed my beautiful voice into this ugly, squeaky, illiterate sound. [Hearing the heart beat is] pretty much the same.

It becomes a kind of pingpong game, your partial ability to control your heartbeat. You can slow it down with breathing, you know, and exercising, but [onstage] it's more a state of mind than some kind of gimmick . . . and that adds a certain mystery to this piece.

That is why it is very internal for me. Dancing is very much a reflection of your state of mind in the present--in a split second. [In this piece] you hear the heartbeat [as well as some electrical impulses], and you hear the changes and skips, because I have arrhythmia--it's normal, a lot of other dancers have this, too--and it will say, uh, oops, blip, plop.

Q: And when that happens you move with it?

A: If you are in the middle of a move, you have to finish it. But it takes you by surprise.

Q: What do you want to give the audience with this piece?

A: I want to give the same experience I have. It's a trip into the self. Thoughts about mortality, and how important or unimportant is the human body, vis-a-vis [the] human mind, and how [they] are related. It is about the heart as an instrument of purely mechanical body function, plus all these romantic elements--what the heart means for humankind. You know, all the cliches involved.

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