SANTA BARBARA — Onstage at the Lobero Theatre, Mikhail Baryshnikov is dancing a duet with himself, interacting with nearly 40-year-old motion-picture images projected on a screen behind him. Shot in St. Petersburg, Russia, at the dawn of his career in the Kirov Ballet, the films have now been manipulated by videographer Olivier Simola so that the young Baryshnikov does an impossible number of ridiculously fast pirouettes -- impossible for the peerless virtuoso he was in the 1960s, much less for the artist who is now 58.
But millennial Misha faces the challenges gamely and astutely, leaving out some of the steps but matching his younger self closely enough that we see the boy in the man and vice versa. When he turned 50, he danced to his amplified heartbeat, and this new Benjamin Millepied piece, "Years Later," is another double-edged statement of inevitability. Like the dancing, the accompaniment ricochets from past to present, incorporating music by Erik Satie, Philip Glass and Meredith Monk.
There's a movement joke about Baryshnikov's aching back and a moment when he's partnering young Canadian dancer Aszure Barton and tries to copy her quirky movement patterns, only to watch her sneer and leave. But there's triumph too: an extended Simola dance-video in which Baryshnikov marshals daunting power and surety for movement sequences shot on a beach and against a wall.
Moreover, after the last Baryshnikov film-dance fades out, a living coda erupts with high-velocity asymmetrical turns and agile booty-shaking, proving definitively that the old guy can still cut it.
"Years Later" turned up Wednesday midway through a program by Hell's Kitchen Dance, a new 14-dancer company featuring Barton along with recent and current students of the Juilliard School and the Tisch School of the Arts in New York. Sponsored by the Baryshnikov Dance Foundation, its current five-city tour is the first chance audiences outside New York have to sample the kind of experimental, multimedia work that is one mission of the new Baryshnikov Arts Center in Manhattan.
In "Come In," a plotless ensemble piece choreographed by Barton, film environments by Kevin Freeman (some on view for only seconds at a time) add visual richness to an otherwise dark and somber exploration of a score by Vladimir Martynov. Age becomes a compositional issue here, with Baryshnikov's entrances heralded by the sound of a ticking clock and his dark gray costume contrasting with the dead black worn by his young colleagues.
Barton's style prizes extreme agility, often requiring bodies to collapse inward at surprising angles. She also favors complex gestural embellishments, using a whole cycle of them as a kind of movement texture and also as odd expressive commentary. One-hand typing moves, a quick grab at the throat, a pointing finger, a raised palm: These actions are executed as dancers move across the stage and also when they're seated on folding chairs. At one point, Baryshnikov performs them upright in sync with the lanky, seated Ian Robinson at the far side of the stage, and the gestural vocabulary becomes a link between generations and two very different kinds of dancers.
Elsewhere on the program, Barton literally walks all over Robinson in "Over/Come," her comic look at youthful infatuation set to vintage pop tunes -- some of them in Italian. It begins with quick-change poses that might be snapshots of happy teens in the throes of first love, though as we hear more and more of the swoony music ("How Wonderful to Know"), they all collapse ecstatically.
By the time we hear the burning question "Are You Sincere?," passive ecstasy has turned into something like sexual harassment: Kyle Robinson jamming Ariel Freedman into one of the Lobero stage pillars, for instance. But the rough stuff soon gives way to another outburst of dopey devastation.
Baryshnikov sits this one out, but the solos for Jonathan Alsberry, Todd McQuade and, especially, Freedman confirm Barton's knack for hyperactive dance satire -- and Hell's Kitchen as the Promised Land when it comes to eccentric modern dance bravura.
The engagement concludes tonight, but the performance is sold out. No other Southern California dates are scheduled.