Baryshnikov returns to the Broad (plus Benjamin Millepied downtown)

Yes, it's Misha. There's no mistaking him: the ever-chic haircut, the stern expression peering out from a face that now has added lines and deep crevices, the allure of an icon.

misha-broad-vert.jpgAnd 18 years past the prime of his career - we're talking about the one-time heartthrob who could toss off balletic pyrotechnics with laughing ease, defy gravity, devour space and dazzle us with the purity and power of his dancing -- he's basking in a new vehicle, once more at the hospitable Broad Stage.

It's called "In Paris." And the producers identify it as a play. But don't be fooled. Just remember that Mikhail Baryshnikov is a moth to the flame, a performing artist to the stage. Whether he finds heat burning bright, or a dim though artful hangout for his persona, is iffy.

You can't blame him for not habitually trying: he did speaking parts in Hollywood feature films, Kafka-esque experiments on Broadway, TV guest-star episodes, and pseudo-modern-dance forays that gave him no more than the movement equivalent of butlers' lines -- with the spotlight shining all the while.

The single stellar event we've seen since the end of those high-flying days came on his visit three years ago to this same Santa Monica venue. Actually, it was a marvel. Why? Because he put himself in the hands of choreographers who knew how to bring out the best of Baryshnikov - to find the vital dancing actor that is his core, the artist who can extract a deeply human element in characterizations of elegant, ironic humor or burning ardor.

Those three dance-makers -- Mats Eks, Alexei Ratmansky and Benjamin Millepied - got it. And so Misha, the master mime magician, re-materialized as the snazzy Jimmy Cagney vaudevillian, and as the proper Chaplin-esque suitor, and as the ardent Siegfried of romantic fatalism. All of it allowing the unregenerate star, no longer so springy or well-oiled, not to be over-taxed.

This time, though, he put himself in less knowing -- albeit illustrious and theatrically elite -- hands: Moscow's Dmitry Krymov Laboratory. And again we saw Baryshnikov reaching for High Art Experimentalism. But this time, with his fellow Russians as production collaborators, he became just one more object amid a stage of poster cutouts that went in search of a play.

Oh, it was artful, this 80-minute rollout. And distant. And remote. At no time did director Krymov, who adapted Nobel-winner Ivan Bunin's short story about two White Russian fugitives thrust together while living lonely lives in Paris, let up on his compositionally perfect and ever-changing stage pictures - what with English translations of the French and Russian texts crawling up a black screen in huge letters that became part of those pictures; and the black-and-white '30s aura of Baryshnikov in a general's long coat; the cardboard poster look throughout, grouped singers taking up the slack; and at several points a mezzo wailing Mozart and Bizet arias designed to sound as though sung underwater.

There were stagecraft visuals to mildly engage us. But, apart from the momentary fun of listening to him recite the texts in low-voiced French and then in stilted Russian, there was little for the show's star to do that was worthy of him.

What? That old vaudeville shtick of hanging a coat and hat on a wall hook only to have them fall off just as he walks away? (then repeat.) Or the ultimate tedium of watching him apply shaving cream, then comtemplate the razor's edge? Or of unbuttoning a shirt, taking it off, then putting it back on and re-buttoning it? (Total: 10 long minutes.) Do we spy the emperor's new clothes? Or what about the finale's 15-second matador sequence, where he whips a red cape around? Does it seem like an ad-copy reminder that, yes, Misha was a dancer?

We must hope the quest is not over.

  • Onto the new: Benjamin Millepied, he of last year's hit film, "Black Swan," and, notably, the choreographer of a cameo danced by Baryshnikov (referenced above), just left us his calling card at the Music Center via Geneva Ballet, formally called Grand Théâtre de Genève Ballet.

    Since he will head L.A. Dance Project downtown, this little sampler of his work is telling.

    Spectre de la rose-1.jpg
    First off, we should know from it that men are the stars. In their black suits and white open-neck shirts they are exultantly air-borne, they convey the definitive, sharp direction of what his dances are about - and lots of that substance is witty.

    As a spoof on Romantic-era classics, he brought us two Fokine ballets and thrust them into the 21st century. For "Le Spectre de la Rose" there is no open window behind the seated girl, who is dreaming that a hero comes dashing through it. In its place, against an intriguing and colorful Russian modernist set, three semi-comic gallants in those hip black suits and black masks leap through an opening. She stays asleep mostly and they carry her around in cleverly, sporting manner. The whole thing is marvelously entertaining and imaginative.

    The same choreographic held for "Les Sylphides," except that here Millepied ran into trouble with the Chopin score: whenever the waltzes and mazurkas went limpid and long-lined he kept his dancers - women in bright-hued, full-skirted dresses, men in black suits again - hopping around furiously, often suggesting some confrontational behavior between the sexes. Mainly, though, we had massive musical contradiction, a common failing with dance-makers. At times like these we long for the originals.

    Otherwise, Millepied showed off his game with "Amoveo," set to excerpts from Philip Glass's "Einstein on the Beach." An abstract piece, it abounded in the stuff a fine dancer appreciates: something lyric, flowing and natural that is composed of turns and extensions, fast and slow, long and short - all of it within a given heartbeat.

    No doubt we'll have more reasons now to drive downtown, thanks to the Glorya Kaufman Foundation, celebrating its 10th year as an underwriter of Dance at the Music Center.

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