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Swan Lake Hits Boston

Baryshnikov & Troupe Reinterpret Classic

By Elizabeth Kim

When I’m hungry, I much prefer a full meal to a succession of sweet or tangy snacks. That’s what I didn’t like about the White Oak Dance Project. Most everything else, I liked.

I was hungry to see great dancing when I went to see them perform at the Shubert Theater as part of the FleetBoston Celebrity Series.

The same force that drew the majority of the audience (as far my neighbors and the women waiting in line for the bathroom told me) pulled me to the performance: Mikhail Baryshnikov. The famous Russian expatriate, who once lit up the stages of the Kirov Ballet and directed the American Ballet Theatre in the 1980s, founded White Oak with Mark Morris in 1990.

I went with reasonable expectations. I considered myself forewarned that their stuff would be avant-garde and experimental. A name like “Project” instead of “Company,” and a one-sentence description of the program “PASTForward” as “a project that illuminates the radical and courageous work of seminal American choreographers from the 1960s and 70s,” were dead giveaways that the audience should sit down with open minds.

And I think I did. I was thrilled with the second piece, “Chair.” Baryshnikov turned my idea of dance away from stuffy tutus and classical music and toward our daily life by glorifying the bored kid who gets his butt stuck in the gray folding chair, who leaps effortlessly over the chair, who is flying horizontally over the chair, who is crawling underneath the chair, who is wearing the chair. It was stout with easy physical humor.

But did they really have to repeat the entire thing twice with two other dancers? Repetition seems to have interested the 60s and 70s choreographers to an almost exaggerated degree. “Trio A Pressured #3” was a set of variations on a theme. It was first performed backward by two dancers, then forward by a dancer and her admirer following her face (she looked down and he lay on the floor, gazing upon her; she spun and he scrambled to follow her visage; she leapt and he bobbed after her), and finally with two dancers performing forward, independently of each other. The variations each were beautiful, but at times the choreography was too boring to sustain the repetitions.

As with all experiments, some of the works were great successes, and others weren’t. For me, “Carnation” falls into the latter category. Featuring a dancer who did not dance but silently moved about a theater set, the piece got me thinking as it blurred the lines between acting and dancing, but at the cost of a brain-cell-rotting five-minute transportation of pastel kitchen sponges from a wire basket to the dancer’s mouth. Why half the audience laughed, I’ll never know. The end of the piece saved it from disaster by revealing the power of a little self-satisfied grin.

Not all the pieces tried to make us laugh. “Homemade” instead warped time by juxtaposing Baryshnikov with a simultaneous video image of himself as he performed experimental arm flaps, leaps, and emotional facial expressions. He carried the film projector on his back, so as he turned, the image swept through the balconies and curtains. I was surprised to see Baryshnikov’s image lag behind him partway through the piece, understanding for the first time that the perfect synchronization between the live man and his image was practiced. Suddenly the dancer’s image preceded him, weeping on the screen a few seconds before the live man. Dance opened an eerie exploration of mortality.

Apparently, the hors d’oeuvres were excellent for the most part, but when the full meal finally was uncovered, I wished I had been eating it instead the entire evening. “Blah blah blah” and “Concerto” were the only two pieces which involved recognizable dance -- flowing movement, leaps, pirouettes, and other movements which show that these dancers are nearly a different species from the average person. Upon seeing “Blah blah blah,” the woman to my right excitedly informed me, “Now that’s dance!” It was a foreshadowing of what I had been unconsciously craving all evening -- to see Baryshnikov show off what he was famous for: his crisp, confident, perfect movement; about-faces that sprayed the theatre with character.

I was amazed to see how beautifully the human body could move, and despite the welcome relaxation and opening of imagination for dance that the other pieces offered, I could understand for the first time why ballet and the predictable movements of dance have endured -- they are stunning.