Fri, Feb 23, 2001 - Page 7 News List

Dance icon beats path to Taipei

Mikhail Baryshnikov, perhaps modern dance's most important living figure, will be in town for three days with his White Oak Dance Project


The White Oak Dance Project, featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov, will put on three shows this weekend in Taipei.


Mikhail Baryshnikov. The name alone is enough to fill seats in theaters around the world. At an age (53), when most ballet dancers have hung up their tights, retired from the stage to teach or to appear briefly in character parts such as Romeo or Juliet's parents, Baryshnikov is still moving forward, still exploring the limits of dance.

Now he does so as the co-founder, lead dancer and principal mover and shaker of the White Oak Dance Project, which is in Taipei tonight through Sunday night. And let's be frank, it is the magic of Baryshnikov's name -- which even non-balletomanes have heard through his film work or his colorful love life lavishly reported in gossip columns -- and his rare physical brilliance, which are White Oak's main drawing cards.

No matter how good the other dancers or choreographers are, modern dance doesn't draw the crowds that classical ballet does. There are far more people who have seen Swan Lake than have seen Merce Cunningham's Signals.

Baryshnikov made a sensational entrance into the international dance scene in 1974, when he defected from Russia's Kirov Ballet while on tour in Canada. His defection immediately created the kind of buzz not seen since his compatriot Rudolf Nureyev made his dash for freedom over a decade before in Paris.

Though renowned as a ballet dancer (has anyone else leapt so high or spun so fast around a stage in the flashy La Corsaire pas de deux?) Baryshnikov has been interested in all forms of dance. He moved easily from the classical repertoire to the abstract choreography of Georg Balanchine and Roland Petit, from the modern dance of Martha Graham to Broadway musicals and the classic film dances of Fred Astaire or his favorite, Jimmy Cagney, the movie tough guy who hoofed his way through Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Baryshnikov jumped from the Kirov straight into the American Ballet Theater (ABT) and then to Balachine's New York City Ballet because of his desire to experiment with different dance forms, to work with different choreographers, to work with the best.

But he always seemed to be trying to show that dance was more than the rigid forms prescribed by the ballet repertoire or the sterile abstractness of modern forms. He wanted to show that dance could be taken, by dancer and audience alike, both seriously and yet be a lot of fun.

For those who were awed by Baryshnikov's performances as the doomed heroes in Giselle or Swan Lake, the dancer showed off a whole new facet of his talent, and his strong sense of humor came through in pieces like Twyla Tharp's Push Comes to Shove.

Just as this desire to experiment was key to Baryshnikov's personal development as a dancer, it also proved crucial to his 10-year tenure as artistic director of the ABT, as he moved to expand its repertoire with pieces from some of the best contemporary choreographers. One of those collaborations, with Mark Morris, the dance Wunderkind of the 1980s, proved prophetic.

Baryshnikov commissioned Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes from Morris for ABT in 1990 and that led to these two dance greats to decide to collaborate on a more long-term basis, by forming the White Oak Dance Project, a small, ever-changing ensemble of elite dancers from the top companies, performing specially commissioned works and resurrecting hallmark pieces by Jerome Robbins, Jose Limon, Paul Taylor and Trisha Brown.

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