"The challenge is to find the essential elements of dance.
What is interesting? What is it about?
This is minimalism."

 

An Interview with Mikhail Baryshnikov,
Artistic Director, White Oak Dance Project
October, 2000

By Gabrielle Barnett

 

Gabrielle Barnett, on assignment with Anchorage Daily News, conducted this interview with Mikhail Baryshnikov, prior to the premiere of PASTForward, the White Oak tour. Excerpts from this phone interview were published in the Anchorage Daily News, October 3, 2000.


Gabrielle Barnett: Why begin the PASTForward tour in Anchorage, so far from the center of the dance world?
Mikhail Baryshnikov:
What is the center of the dance world really? New York City, Paris… we don’t need them. We need time to prepare a show without pressure. Anchorage can offer us that — a place and time to work. It’s ideal.

Why are you taking such an artistic risk at this point in your career?
It’s not a risk, it’s just fun. It’s what’s left in life, to work with interesting people. To walk across the street is a risk. These works have become classics. They have been approved by time, they are part of history. I want to introduce them to a new generation, to a new audience. The show is not just for dance lovers. We will show the socio-political perspective, the context in which this dance emerged.

What was your introduction to "post-modern dance"? Was it when you performed in Twyla Tharp’s When Push Comes to Shove in 1976, shortly after you came to the United States…
No, Twyla is a solid modern choreographer, not postmodern. Her work is very central, mainstream. Working with her did open up a new world, but David Gordon was my introduction to the postmodern Judson choreographers. I met Gordon in the early ‘80s. I saw the work he was doing at Dance Theater Workshop with the Pick Up Company and Valda Setterfield. I was interested in how he manipulated objects. His work was down to earth and austere. He created material for American Ballet Theatre — Made in USA — and we became friends. I discovered Lucinda Childs and Trisha Brown in the ‘70s and ‘80s – I started to see their shows more and more. I found films of Rainer’s work in the New York Public Library. I met Steve Paxton next. Deborah Hay and Simone Forti came later.

How did you get Yvonne Rainer to choreograph again, after working in film for decades?
I asked her “does this program make sense to you?” She said, “I have a dream list.” Her idea of an evening. No one was hostile, but no one was enthusiastic. Some people wanted to create new work, not restage old material. I asked David Gordon to direct because he is also involved in theater, he has a sharp directorial eye. Then we needed Charles Atlas for the socio-political context; he’s doing a an introductory film. We are looking back, reexamining what was interesting and controversial, what they did, what they wanted to say. The show is about retracking, retracing.

Last June, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, you performed material in Rainer’s After Many Summer Dies the Swan that was originally danced by Valda Setterfield. Is there a story behind your solo?
No, there’s no story. It was Yvonne’s idea to have me dance Valda’s solo. I said yes, I didn’t think about how it would look, what people would think. In PASTForward, we will just do excerpts from Swan. People had longer attention spans in the ‘60s. The works have been abridged to make it easy, more accessible for the TV generation.

Will you stage any brand new pieces in PASTForward?
David Gordon’s For the Love of the Rehearsal is a new piece. And Deborah Hay’s The Whizz.

Which pieces will involve community dancers?
Exit, by Deborah Hay is a community piece. And The Matter by David Gordon.

Have you worked with community dancers before?
Yes, as extras. These will be wonderful pieces for people to participate in.

Can you talk about technique and postmodern dance? Many people assume there is no technique when they don’t see pointed toes and turn-out.
Almost all these choreographers had studied with Cunningham. They took that Cunningham line and put it on a pedestrian level. Extension is not at all important. It doesn’t matter how high you lift your leg. The technique is about transparency, simplicity, making an earnest attempt. That is the performer’s job. The rest is in the hands of the choreographer. It’s a different technique, with different values in performance.

What about choreography? How are postmodern dances structured?
It varies with the choreographer. Hay has a strong sense of structure which she brings to her choreographic material. Lucinda Child’s work is highly structured, every beat is precise, every movement set, we discovered when we reconstructed Carnation. On the other hand, Steve Paxton’s Satisfyin’ Lover allows the performer his own timing within a structure. It presents the performer with the creative dilemma, within a structure, so the performer participates in a simple way in the creative process.

Will you be dancing in PASTForward?
Yes, I will perform Homemade. And Flat, a Steve Paxton solo. And I will do a duet with Deborah Hay.

Deborah Hay is going to dance as well as choreograph and teach workshops?
Yes, she’s still dancing. All the choreographers are in their sixties now, and they’re all active, teaching, dancing. None have retired. It’s amazing how much influence they’ve had.

What challenges did you encounter when you shifted to learning postmodern dance after a lifetime of ballet training?
The challenge is to find the essential elements of dance. What is interesting? What is it about? This is minimalism. We are re-living it with the choreographers.

Many people don’t know how to watch minimalist dance — with no plot, no emotional mood, no metaphor. What do you suggest?
Just sit and open your eyes and open your heart. It’s dance theater. If your only dance experience is the Nutcracker, it will be a shock; hopefully shocking in a good way. You have to participate as an audience member. You have to ask, "what do they want to say? What boundaries are they stretching? What are their politics, their likes and dislikes?" It’s conceptual dance theater, simple theater. But if you want to see girls en pointe and men doing double tours en l’air stay at home. It’s not Sleeping Beauty or Cats. These are not Andrew Lloyd Webber’s kind of cool cats.

How did you plan the production? Did all the Judson choreographers get together for a grand reunion?
No, there was no big reunion. But we did get together in Princeton, with Jennifer Tipton, the lighting designer. We were all there, except Lucinda, she was in Europe. We got together for a few dinners and a few debates. It was an enjoyable process.

Rudolph Nureyev comes to mind as another ballet star who reconstructed dances of the historical avant-garde later in his career. Was his work an influence on you?
No, Nureyev was just interested in classical material. I started much earlier, working with modern choreographers.

What process did you use to reconstruct dances for PASTForward?
It was up to the choreographer. Some people wanted to preserve the piece as it was originally staged. Others wanted to update the work — Homemade was updated in a workshop. Paxton’s pieces are kept the same. Charles Atlas will do a documentary about making PASTForward. There’s not much video material from those days; we will try to document it, for history.

Our time is almost up — is there anything you want to add about PASTForward?
I hope people will come and enjoy the show. It’s fun. Its multi-media. There’s text and film as well as dance. You’ll recognize stuff from the ‘60s.

 

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