Present Perfect

New York

Left: Mikhail Baryshnikov in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Valse-Fantasie” (2009) at Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York, 2010. Right: Steve Paxton in “The Beast” (2010) at Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York. (Photos: Julieta Cervantes)

THE MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV who danced three of the six solos on the program correctly titled “Unrelated Solos” last week at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York is now at the height of his powers as an impresario of contemporary dance. He has used his superstar status to place contemporary choreography and its modernist history at the center of cosmopolitan cultural discourse. In order to hold the attention of fans and funders, he occasionally delivers himself live onstage. How long he can keep up his end of this tacit bargain is a question he has raised in recent interviews—hence the sold-out performances with hundred of standbys turned away for what might have been one of his last New York appearances, his first in his namesake center’s spare, new Jerome Robbins Theater.

Once seated, my companion Douglas Crimp and I noticed several devotees of contact improvisation (distinguished by their Vermont woolen accessories) eagerly awaiting the world premiere of the solo by contact guru Steve Paxton. Also in the crowd was arts patron–turned-filmmaker Anne Bass with Cambodian dancer Sokvannara Sar, her discovery and the subject of her movie Dancing Across Borders. We noticed the peculiar seats in the new theater—plush covered benches, each accommodating three spectators. Since the space between the rows is extremely narrow, the occupants of each bench must rise simultaneously to allow people to pass, thus creating repeated aleatory trios of plié and relevé.

Choreographed respectively by Benjamin Millepied, Alexei Ratmansky, and Susan Marshall, Baryshnikov’s solos demanded little more from him than his presence and consummate grace of body and manner. Laboring the obvious, Millepied had the star partner with his own film image, projected larger and younger on a screen at the back of the stage. When a sequence of the teenage Baryshnikov doing pirouettes in a Kirov classroom was looped so that the rapid, precision-perfect turns in place were extended ad infinitum, the living sixty-two-year-old dancer raised an eyebrow and a shoulder as if to say, “What for?”—a gesture that perhaps he should have made even before the piece began. Ratmansky’s somewhat more intriguing rumination on the changes wrought by time’s passage showed off Baryshnikov’s expressive qualities as a mime, although that well-trod path for aging ballet stars seemed not particularly inspiring to him. Marshall’s work-in-progress raised the existential question “For whom does one dance?” and then answered it by having Baryshnikov call to the stage three audience plants from the front row (credited in the program as “assistants to the choreographer.”) Again, “What for?”

There’s nothing wrong with throwaways, which, at best, was what these solos were, although I would rather have seen Baryshnikov do his daily barre. Still, it’s disappointing that nothing here came close to the courage, relish, and wild humor he showed when, for example, assaying “Valda’s Solo” in the White Oak Dance Project revival of Yvonne Rainer’s The Mind is a Muscle, one of the most memorable dance moments in recent memory.

Filling out the program, the two solos choreographed and danced by David Neumann suggested, in their relationship of movement and word, David Gordon lite. Paxton’s “The Beast,” on the other hand, was a mesmerizing work. Paxton, who is nearly ten years older than Baryshnikov and is experiencing some of the same inevitable physical limitations, has always foregrounded a certain “being in the present” in his dance practice. “The Beast” is based in the Tai Chi–gone-Cubist movement vocabulary Paxton has employed for some fifty years, but with emphasis on the articulation of joints and vertebrae, the body imagined inside out. If a crustacean could trace its consciousness in its carapace, it might move as Paxton did in this darkly beautiful piece, an intimate examination of the living skeleton and an evocation of what remains in the grave.

Amy Taubin