It was 1991 when Mikhail Baryshnikov last graced a Louisville stage, in a performance at the Kentucky Center with the White Oak Dance Project, the contemporary dance troupe he founded with choreographer Mark Morris. That collaboration had begun the previous year, and it signaled a commitment by one of the most formidable dancers of our times to tour new and modern works.
Baryshnikov disbanded the project in 2002, but the idolized dancer with a restless soul has not stood still. In his storied career, he has mastered classical ballet, shifted to contemporary dance and worked in film and television; now he is onstage again and traveling across the United States this summer.
Last Wednesday he took the stage at the Brown Theatre for a Kentucky Center presentation of his current project, Hell’s Kitchen Dance. (He was also at the 21c Museum to oversee the installment of several photographs he made of dancers from the Dominican Republic, which are on exhibit through Sept. 15.)
Hell’s Kitchen involves an ensemble of young dancers from The Julliard School and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts who perform works by choreographers that Baryshnikov admires.
Such an effort seems unexpected for someone who, on the eve of his 50th birthday nearly 10 years ago, told a New York Times dance critic, “This is the last part of life. Life is over. That’s it.”
Obviously, it was not over. Now, through Hell’s Kitchen Dance, created at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City, he provides opportunities for young dancers to work with him, and, in his view, with up-and-coming choreographers like Azure Barton and Benjamin Millepied.
Last week’s Louisville performance opened with Baryshnikov, now 59, alone onstage, dressed in a blue shirt and dark gray trousers against a scrim. In “Years Later,” he danced with his shadow and film projections of his younger self as he trained in a studio before his 1974 defection from Russia, and also later during the period in which he wowed U.S. audiences (including those here in 1979 when he danced with the Louisville Ballet).
To choreography by Millepied and with music by Philip Glass and Erik Satie, Baryshnikov’s jumps were not as high or as forceful as the old days. Instead, every move — from a pirouette to the gentle wave of the wrist — embodied easy grace and emotion, an ability that belies a great artist. He hinted at his past in other ways, including moving his hands in profile as if on a bas relief. That evoked the Russian dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, who took the early 20th century dance world by storm with towering leaps and, later, controversial themes in his choreographed ballets.
Baryshnikov was clearly the draw for this crowd at the Brown, but his purpose is to focus the spotlight on the new work and Hell’s Kitchen’s young dancers. The work shone most brightly in “Come In,” featuring Baryshnikov and the entire company in Barton’s choreography with music by Vladimir Martynov. It conjured ideas of birth and death — as the company members, each dressed in black, enter and exit the stage in a group — and events in between. During their time on stage, dancers coupled in brief duets or subsisted in solitude. They repeated particular vocabulary, including a bowing to the ground with rigid and outstretched hands pointing downward, like shovels working to plant seeds. Several, including Baryshnikov, mimed punching buttons on an adding machine and tearing away its paper trail to examine the sum. On the back scrim, video images flashed intermittently, including those of stark winter landscapes and one of a woman with long russet-colored hair staring away from the camera, imbuing the theater with melancholy.
Overall, Baryshnikov displayed his mastery and comfort with the language of movement, outshining his apprentices, who executed strong technique but could not fully conjure the piece’s subtle sentiments.
But Hell’s Kitchen Dance and its touring performances, like the path Baryshnikov has taken (and is taking), is not just about performance. These performances are part of a process — of dancers reaching for their potential, of audiences learning to discern maturity and artistry, and of creating community to support the journey of young artists. These are admirable objectives in dance, such an ephemeral art form and so easily overshadowed by commercial culture and athletics.
I only hope this performance endures in the minds of those sitting in the sold-out theater, and plants the idea of reaching not only to New York but also within our own community to nurture the dancers of today and tomorrow.
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