Baryshnikov breaks new ground

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Having reached the august age of 40 last year (40 is august in the ballet world), American Ballet Theater did a back flip and hired the young, adventurous Mikhail Baryshnikov as its new artistic director.

ABT's current season at the Metropolitan Opera, which runs until June 13, is New York's first view of the company under the new administration. Does ABT have a new look? Is its artistic policy noticeably different?

Obviously, these kinds of questions take a long time in the answering, but leave it to choreographer Twyla Tharp to comment on the situation right away and right on the stage, while others speculate in the local coffee shops. Tharp's "Push Comes to Shove," created in 1976 for Baryshnikov when he was merely a dancer with ABT, has always been something of a ballet a clefm on the company's habits and morale. As revealed on opening night, Tharp has updated the ballet so as to interpret Baryshnikov's new role at ABT. As is her way, the commentary is humorous and invitingly ambiguous. Read into it what you may.

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The biggest change is the finale. It used to spoof the protocol and royal airs of curtain calls. The joke was that the dancers with the slimmest parts in the ballet took the fattest bows. As I read it, the finale now puts Baryshnikov at the center of a busy midtown intersection, where he must tender the crowd as a jack-of-all-trades. He has to usher the dancers on, do a little partnering here, a little spurring on there, keep the dance rolling while keeping out of the way. At one point he's relegated to prop boy for a bunch of derbies.

What does he do with all those hats? Chucks them into the wings, naturally. Through it all, Baryshnikov is looking a bit befuddled, a bit the outsider, yet good-humored and very cute.

That's how Tharp sees it. Opening night presented other aspects of Baryshnikov's directorship. One of his ideas is to enrich the repertory by mining for gold in other repertories. One result is "Les Rendezvous," from the Royal Ballet's Sir Frederick Ashton. "Les Rendezvous" is too slight, and the music by Auber too banal, to be gold. But it's a pretty piece with beautiful costumes and set by William Chappell. It's the kind of ballet that announces itself as a small, innocent lark, with the dancers behaving as prom princesses.

The dancing, however, is incredibly strenuous and difficult. It's a strange work in that its tone and the actual content of the choreography work at cross purposes. Yet as a workout for the ensemble, it's useful. And as a showcase for a ballerina, it's more than useful.

Besides recruiting ballets from other companies, Baryshnikov intends to revive the Russian classics with himself as the producer. In May, a full evening of divertissements by Petipa will be premiered. On opening night we saw a preview of it, with Baryshnikov's staging of selection from Petipa's "Raymonda."

Considering the high-voltage glamour of this Hungarian-styled ballet, "Raymonda" was wrongly subdued. Baryshnikov begins it oddly, with the grand pas de deux. Such a number is usually the culmination of a Russian ballet rather than the prologue. Putting that duet behind a scrim futher dampens its brilliance. On this occasion "Raymonda" did not regain its spirit after a soggy start. Nor did the audience regain its spirit, until "Push Comes to Shove" came sailing into view.

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