Baryshnikov springs onstage and 'The Old Woman' rejoices

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Photos by Lucie Jansch.

At last. After roughly 15 years of wandering in the theatrical desert, Mikhail Baryshnikov has finally found the most deserving spotlight of his post-dancing career -- "The Old Woman," with actor Willem Dafoe, staged by that mastermind-poet-artist Robert Wilson, the force that does not fail.

To say the wall-to-wall crowd at UCLA's Royce Hall was captivated would be a fair assessment. Because what took place there -- as well as in New York, Paris, Buenos Aires and all the other clamoring world capitals where the show continues to tour -- brimmed with bemusement and mirth in an unendingly imaginative, eye-catching yet pristine spectacle. It framed the Russian heartthrob in a moving snapshot enlivened by each breath he took.

But before we get to those details it's good to see the whole historic perspective -- that Misha, as the world calls him, landed on U.S. stages in 1974 after defecting from the Soviet Union's Imperial Kirov Ballet and electrified audiences with his do-or-die Albrecht ("Giselle," the "Hamlet" of ballet), converting high-tech steps to purely dramatic ends and with his hilarious Basilio ("Don Q."), tossing off bravura feats like a comic nothing.

He also sparked savvy American choreographers Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris, to create dances only he could bring to full dimension. Vaganova-trained, innately gifted, he was the peerless virtuoso, the divine mime. He delivered kinetic punchlines unblinkingly -- so legible they stayed in your mind's eye.

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There was his uncaptioned but unmistakable Jimmy Cagney strut, black derby cocked at an angle, flipping and catching it snappy-jack fast, a picture of smoldering mockery. What brilliant absorption of American culture, even while he still lived in the then-restrictive Soviet Union (watching our movies.)

And don't forget the potent theatricality of his classicism -- we saw it in a Pergolesi piece by Tharp, his sly pizzazz filtered through a tone of Italian baroque, all of its courtliness melting crazily into a jive of extraordinary speed and density.

Whatever the magic that passes from artist to artist to collaborator, it happens here also in "Old Woman" between Baryshnikov and Wilson, with enough generalization to incorporate Dafoe as well.

As in previous stage ventures, Baryshnikov turned to Russian/Eastern European authors for his theatrical texts. (How strange it seemed, years ago at the beginning of his post-dancing era, that he appeared on Broadway in Kafka's "Metamorphosis" as the bug, of all things, with not a single word to speak, although over the years he's found his voice.)

For "Old Woman" the story came from the Russian absurdist literature of Daniil Kharms' (adapted by Darryl Pinckney) and what we got seemed like a cross between Beckett and Kafka, a nightmare turned on its quizzical head, erupting in surreal vaudeville. A clock, for instance, has no hands. Does eight come before seven or vice versa? A man can't bring home a young lady because there's a dead old woman in his room. These are some of its propositions. Make of them what you will.

But what is utterly engrossing, as always with Wilson, is how his ever-changing stage pictures, spatial scuptures and dimensional lighting give context to the narrative. Even more important, in this case, is how the collaboration brings out Baryshnikov's gifts, a lilting waltz here, a fanciful shuffle there, everywhere the animation of a persona -- that only Misha, through the depth of his talent, could deliver.

There are little duets that Dafoe pulls off with him expertly, but always, just as the eye follows Fred Astaire dancing in old movies, not Donald O'Connor, we fasten on to Baryshnikov -- because his whole-body moves, uniquely of-a-piece, are still compelling.

One vignette that caused absolute glee, was his female impersonation (the girl who was asked home by the man), with a profiled body adjusting itself slyly like supple tendrils folding inward and a delicate voice scaled slightly upwards.

Then there's his singing. Yes, he sings, the way a trained musician with a career-level light baritone would. Who knew, until now? A dynamic collage by Hal Willner gave the two characters an odd assortment of ditties ("Tiger Rag," "Bye Bye Blues"), while the parlando lines, half-sung and half-spoken, have Dafoe's utterances in a gruff growl and his partner's more nuanced.

The two cavort in black suits, suspendered pants, commedia dell'arte white face with a corkscrew horn jutting sideways from the head. They also squeal and squall a good deal when more words instead would be welcome. Both did recite text, Baryshnikov with his lilting accent intact and often in Russian with unreadably blurry English titles on screens.

But these were small nits to pick. The show flew by, one scene after another piling up a host of marvels. Will it come this way again? Only if we're lucky...

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