Baryshnikov reads the phone book

I saw Mikhail Baryshnikov dance last week in Berkeley because art is a balm to the soul in troubled times, and last week was some troubled times. Baryshnikov is 68, though he doesn’t look a day over 59. Actually, he looks darn good and can still cause a swoon with a flick of the wrist.

Baryshnikov in Wilson’s Letter to a Man

The performance was a collaboration he did with Robert Wilson, who created works with Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson. You can tell by those names that Wilson likes it modern and likes it surreal.  Which is fine except that surrealism turns out to be better if you have context.

Modern art has that feature. For example, I have always found cubism more interesting if I can discern the original model – a woman’s face, a guitar, a mountain. When the shapes become completely random, I lose the ability to appreciate what the artist was trying to achieve. The Salvador Dali with the melting clock is easier to think about than the Salvador Dali with the melting oblong blob. Labelled Untitled #4.  My reaction becomes Untitled #5.

I knew that the performance Letter to a Man was about Njinsky, the great Russian ballet dancer of the first half of the 20th century, and that Njinsky went crazy. He also was reported to be bisexual and was in Budapest in 1945, which means he went through both World Wars in a country pretty well torn apart, twice. So there would be war, sex, and dancing. Even all that was not enough context.

The staging included a lot of lights flashing on and off Barysnikov’s heavily made up face,  with him at times sitting in a chair on the stage or descending from the ceiling upside down, sitting in a chair. A voice would read passages, sometimes in English, sometimes in Russian. The passage would be repeated multiple times.  He danced quite a bit, to jazzy tunes both recent and from the 1940s and 1950s, but often that was while machine guns were going off in the background or red dripped from the sky.

This part was apparently about sex

I first saw Baryshnikov at Washington DC when I was 17 years old. I think it was the first time I’d ever seen ballet, and I was smitten. He danced a Balanchine piece called The Prodigal Son, which was a bit modern 40 years ago, but these days would be considered an old chestnut. At the end of the dance, when he returns home, he crawls on his belly over to his father (who looked like Gandalf) and pulled himself up the older man’s frame until he hung in a fetal position without any support. It was breathtaking; I can still visualize it.

A great dancer – with the right choreography – will literally take your breath away as they perform moves that look beyond human. You know there’s no green screen or special effects behind it.

Le Corsair @1975

I saw him a couple times later when he came to the west coast – as well as in the movie Turning Point – on a nice big giant screen, a movie that earned him an Oscar nomination. It wasn’t really for his acting, since his accent was so thick you could barely understand him and his facial expression were pretty much just Ru-u-ussian, it was a nomination for his dancing. But oi! what dancing!  I bought a poster of him doing a jete (that’s a fancy schmancy dance term meaning jump).  I hung it next to my poster of Bille Jean King diving for a ball at Wimbledon because amazing physical feats should always be appreciated. Baryshnikov never disappointed.

Saturday Night Love once did a parody sketch of John Houseman, the dramatic-voiced actor from The Paper Chase, reading the phone book. Ever since, that’s kind of my gold standard for an actor. Are they so good that I would watch them read the phone book? There are definitely actors that I would watch – Patrick Stewart, John Gielgud, Robin Williams, Carol Burnett…. You can imagine your own list.

So, for Baryshnikov, I would probably be fine just watching him silhouetted against a dark background, moving around the stage. And there was a lot of that.

But I also have to confess that I also kept wondering to myself – what would a person in a Red State think of this? i.e. what would a non-elite think? Probably that it seemed odd and a little overwrought.

For example, the dance opens with a voiceover saying, as Njinsky, “I understand war because I fought with my mother in law.” Which is funny, except then it was repeated eight or nine times. In both English and Russian. Does it take on a mantra-like quality, as one review suggested? For me, it made me squirm in my seat. Uh oh, one of those types of things. Good thing Karin isn’t here, she hates this type of thing.

Angst? War? You took my donut?

Later, I read a review in the New Yorker of the version when it was in New York. In the review, it was explained that Dhagliev – the person that the diary overvoice keeps mention about as being “not God” or “you are not king” – is the theatrical producer who brought Njinsky into a romantic relationship and then dumped him when he married. Would have helped to know that.

Also, that strange black and white backdrop that looks like mud is Budapest in the winter. Very evocative if you know what it is. Would have helped to know that.

So surrealism, it turns out, is not my cup of tea unless it’s all explained to me in advance. And yet… and yet… when Baryshnikov did do the slow shuffle, the little caper and soft shoe, when he lifted his hand up against the white screen and moved it just so… well, it was magic. And I can expire happily knowing that I got to see Mikhail dance at least once more before he’s gone. Although he seems to be in pretty darned good shape, so perhaps he’ll still be dancing at 80 or 90.

But I definitely would rather see him do the life story of Ray Bolger or Nureyev or maybe even the life story of Mikhail Baryshnikov. Something that doesn’t involve madness or the war. Or he could just dance the phone book.

The day after, we rented the Melissa McCarthy movie The Boss to watch at home over low-fat popcorn. It was vulgar; it was farcical; it was ridiculous. We laughed our heads off.  Because laughter is also balm in these troubled times.

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