I have a hunch that living legend Mikhail Baryshnikov will perform this weekend in the intimate, 300-seat theater at On the Boards. (This is all my own guesswork—staff at On the Boards refused to confirm or deny anything. In fact, they seemed a little chagrined I was even asking.) If I'm right, this is a very big deal.
It's big enough news that the Mark Morris Dance Group is bringing four pieces—including one world premiere—to On the Boards. Morris, who is originally from Seattle but moved to NYC in the mid-70s and became an international dance and choreography phenomenon, normally brings his company to venues with thousands of seats. This weekend's performances sold out long ago.
"We’d never dance in theaters that small," Morris said over the phone last week. "It’s crazy, but we wanted to do something more chamber-sized." (That was the mildest thing he said. For his endearingly sharp and catty observations about Seattle, NYC, and American arts culture in general—including the capstone quote, "I may sound cunty, but I'm doing it fondly"—see an interview with him in this week's upcoming paper.)
The (possible) appearance of Baryshnikov makes it even bigger news.
Here's why I think he'll be there: First, there have been rumors bubbling over the past few days about a "special guest" in the world premiere. The usually forthcoming staff at OtB have been steely and tight-lipped about those rumors. That is unusual and indicates something extra-special.
And there is a clue to this "special guest" mystery in the Morris program—the premiere is titled "A Wooden Tree" (with music and words by Jewish-Scottish musician, poet, and humorist Ivor Cutler); the company Morris and Baryshnikov co-founded in 1990 is called White Oak. Baryshnikov and Morris have worked together extensively throughout the years. One source in the arts world said there would be extra security at OtB this weekend.
Who else could it be?
For those of you who already have tickets, this would be a happy surprise. (For a few of you, this would be like the second coming of Jesus Christ.) For those of you who don't have tickets—sorry. The MMDG program was sold out weeks ago. There isn't even a wait list. But if my hunch is correct, I bet there will be scalpers.
Say what you will about Mark Morris—some adore him, some grumble about him, and he's keenly aware of both constituencies—but if I'm right about Baryshnikov, this will be a rare opportunity to see a world master, an international legend, perform the choreography of another international legend up close and personal.
The careers of both Morris and Baryshnikov have transcended the ballet/modern divide. Morris (the shape-shifter and gender-bender with a classical vocabulary) challenges human bodies, and his career has been a deep inquiry into what they can achieve. Baryshnikov (the fine-tuned master who has been compared to Nureyev and Nijinsky) has a body that has been developed to the far limits of human potential, not to mention a fathoms-deep well of life experience.
To whet your appetite for my wild speculation, one of my favorite critical descriptions of Baryshnikov—Joan Acocella in 1998 describing a performance he gave at the Latvian state ballet—is below the jump.
Both shows were a great success, but nothing was quite like the piece that Baryshnikov closed with on the last night. This was Tharp's Pergolesi—a smart choice, since, like the other pieces Tharp has made for Baryshnikov, it includes ballet, and so Baryshnikov was able to show the audience his old fireworks. Actually, though, Pergolesi includes just about everything: folk dance, eighteenth-century dance, quotes from famous ballets (Le Spectre de la Rose, La Sylphide, Swan Lake), shimmies, boogaloo, golf swings. He got a chance to do every kind of dance he knew—not just what he had learned in the West but also what he had been taught at the Riga School of Choreography.
And I don't know what happened—maybe it was the bringing together of the two halves of his history, or maybe it was relief that this heavily freighted trip was nearly over, or maybe now, at the end, he just wanted to give these people everything he had—but he exploded.
I have never seen him so happy onstage, or so wild. ("He's showing off!" said Lisa Rinehart, who was sitting next to me.) He gave them double barrel turns, he gave them the triple pirouettes in attitude (and then he switched to the other leg and did two more). He rose like a piston; he landed like a lark. He took off like Jerry Lee Lewis; he finished like Jane Austen. From ledge to ledge of the dance he leapt, surefooted, unmindful, a man in love. The audience knew what they were seeing. The air in the theater thickened almost visibly. Even the members of the orchestra, though their backs were to him, seemed to understand that something unusual was happening. Out of the pit, the beautiful introduction to Pergolesi's Adriano in Siria rose like a wave, and he rode it up to the finish. By that time, we actually wanted him to stop, so that we could figure out what had happened to us. Latvians, I was told by the locals, almost never give standing ovations. And they never yell "Bravo!" in the theater; they consider it vulgar. But they yelled "Bravo!" for him, and everyone stood, including the president of the republic.
Look for the interview with Morris in the next few days.