Three distinguished artists, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Steve Paxton, and David Neumann, presented Unrelated Solos at Baryshnikov Arts Center on Wednesday evening as part of May Nights in the Jerome Robbins Theater. These strikingly different dancers were at the top of their game in an evening of unique and memorable performances. All three were compelling, and no matter what Baryshnikov does, he’s utterly mesmerizing. Simply by standing on stage, his presence, grace, and poise were spellbinding. It was a rare, wonderful treat to be able to watch him – at age 62, no less – perform live along with two other accomplished artists.
The evening featured three solos performed by Baryshnikov, two by Neumann, and one by Paxton. The dancers’ disparate backgrounds lent themselves to their performances: Baryshnikov performed with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet before directing the White Oak Dance Project and founding BAC, Paxton was one of the founders of contact improvisation and the Judson Dance Theater, and Neumann works in both dance and theater as artistic director of advanced beginner group. As such, the program was well-balanced and showed little overlap in terms of style. Perhaps the only “related” component among the solos was the dancers’ magnetism.
Baryshnikov opened the program with the New York premiere of Benjamin Millepied’s Years later, a meditation on aging and a charming look at Misha’s past set to music by Philip Glass and Akira Rabelais. A thoughtful, quiet solo transitioned to a more playful conversation between the on-stage Misha and filmed footage of the much younger Misha (As if watching him on stage weren’t enough, imagine trying to simultaneously watch the live man and rare footage of him from at least forty years ago). The live dancer echoed the movement of his younger self – with Jennifer Tipton’s gorgeous lighting design casting shadows across the two in various ways – but eventually he could not keep up with the filmed Baryshnikov. Asa Mader’s video design looped one of his astounding pirouettes so that they seemed to be never-ending. The live Misha shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “Ok, you win”, and acknowledged the passing of time.
Mikhail Baryshnikov in Benjamin Millepied’s Years later, photo by Andrea Mohin
His second solo, Alexei Ratmansky’s Valse-Fantasie, was equally light-hearted. Baryshnikov took on the role of Mikhail Glinka, the composer of the piece who, while writing the score, was infatuated with Yekaterina Kern, the daughter of a famous high society beauty of the Napoleonic era in Russia. Circumstances kept them apart, and after going abroad to cure his heartache, Glinka returned without any feelings for Kern. Utilizing precise mime set to the swift violin waltz, Baryshnikov conveyed Glinka’s ever-changing emotions and drama while emphasizing Ratmansky’s delicate wit and nuanced style.
David Neumann’s 1996 solo Dose illustrated Neumann playing it cool to a Tom Waits song. Wearing a black suit and hat under a spotlight center stage, Neumann winked, echoed some of the song’s lyrics with gestures, and remained cool and confident throughout the lightning-quick work. His second solo, Tough the tough (redux) was a darker re-working of a 2006 solo. DJ Mendel’s recorded narration written by Will Eno explained that Neumann was a man named “Steve”, or possibly “Steven/Stephan/mankind/humanity/whatever”. As Mendel narrated the everyday minutiae and decisions of life, Steve went about his day, occasionally appearing clumsy or indecisive yet always returning to his routine. For all of its humor and irony, Tough the tough (redux) was an impressive, well-crafted commentary on the predictability and follies of humanity.
Paxton’s solo, a world premiere called The Beast, was the least accessible and most nuanced work on the program. Dressed in street clothes and standing under a dim circle of light, Paxton (now 71 years old) shifted delicately from one subtle movement to the next – either in silence or to the occasional sound of little bursting bubbles. His ongoing internal conversation with his body about what came next was remarkably focused without exerting excruciating effort. Even if the audience could not detect the inner initiative for each movement, Paxton’s natural ease and awareness was clear.
Steve Paxton in The Beast, photo by Julieta Cervantes
Closing the program was For You, a work in progress choreographed by Susan Marshall in collaboration with Baryshnikov. After formally presenting himself to the audience with a quick opening to 1st position (reminiscent of the opening in Balanchine’s Serenade), Baryshnikov invited three members of the audience, one by one, onto the stage and into a chair. While maintaining eye contact, he performed a brief solo for each individual and eventually wove the solos together into a larger expression of gratitude. The piece created a wonderful sense of intimacy between Misha and the individuals on stage, and for the rest of the audience, it was fascinating to watch them shift between nervousness, delight, and sheer admiration as they marveled at one of the most wondrous dancers of our time performing just inches away from them.