`Swan Lake' in Little Rock: Baryshnikov & Co. brings ballet to down-home USA

``The Class,'' a ballet about a ballet class, was a fitting opening number for Baryshnikov & Co. here. As the curtain rose, the company of 15 American Ballet Theater (ABT) dancers pli'ed with artistic director Mikhail Baryshnikov. They looked unintimidating as knees bent and straightened in black-and-gray leotards. It was as if they were letting the audience in on something. They were. The group demurely moved their ballet barres out of the way and began jumping. Before you knew it, Baryshnikov was hurtling through the air in an assortment of leaps and turns, several of each type. It was as if he had taken apart the role of a prince and neatly assembled the steps before you. And later, when just Baryshnikov and Elaine Kudo stood at the barre going through their paces separately and calmly, but with an odd unity, the thrill was not merely romantic. You saw the outline of a b rilliant partnership, filled in later when they danced Twyla Tharp's ``Sinatra Suite.''

Baryshnikov & Co. has visited 29 cities this summer -- probably the last 29 cities where you'd expect to see them -- performing a concert that shows ballet's high points to the uninitiated. In Hershey, Pa., and Little Rock, Ark., an audience may see ``Swan Lake'' less often than in New York, but it knows what it likes. ``Every day they scream,'' says dancer Gil Boggs. ``They're right there with you.''

There's a lot to scream about. Watching them dance in Springfield was like eating a two-pound box of bonbons for dinner. Still gasping at Amanda McKerrow's feet beating like an electric mixer as she kept unaccountably rising higher in a ``Swan Lake'' morsel, you sank into the creamy center of ``Giselle.'' Baryshnikov held Bonnie Moore's arms as she flailed, shaping them perfectly. Supporting her, he responded so eloquently to her unformed movements that you found yourself leaning with him. There was only an intermission to spend wishing he had never let go of her, before a bright quartet snapped through excerpts from Balanchine's frisky classic ``Who Cares?'' to Gershwin songs. The sight of Cynthia Harvey, Leslie Browne, and Deirdre Carberry bolting in sync with ``I've Got Rhyt hm,'' then twirling around the revolving Robert LaFosse, had to be swallowed before dessert -- Tharp's ``Sinatra Suite.'' No one in the audience was blas'e. Everyone just seemed to want more.

That, says Gil Boggs, was the story of the tour. One-night-stand audiences were ready for everything. On the other hand, he points out, when he does long runs in bigger cities as a soloist with ABT, ``some nights you can have a bad audience.''

The main thing is Baryshnikov's appeal. But in Chattanooga, Tenn., people Boggs grew up with came from Atlanta to see him dance. The hometowns of several dancers were on the tour, and on those nights ``Misha let them take a special bow.''

Although ``The Dying Swan'' looked like a contortionist act, with technique driving out soul, in general the dancers beamed back the audience's first-night delight. A New York critic remarked on how much more fun it was to see them in Springfield than at the Met.

The dancers come from ABT, but Baryshnikov & Co. is a separate entity, formed every summer since 1980. It stays away from places ABT visits on its tours. Each performance is a fund-raiser -- the Springfield concert stood to raise $30,000 for Jacob's Pillow, the United States' oldest summer dance festival. Bernie Lawrence, who specializes in fund-raisers, is the tour's producer.

``I'm not a saint,'' he explains. ``I make a profit. But it's easier for me to go to bed at night,'' he says, knowing he helps nonprofit groups raise money.

Boggs says Baryshnikov seemed to thrive on his relentless schedule. ``No principal [dancer] does it like this night after night,'' he notes. Rather than becoming a tyrant as the tour went on, ``He was a dream the whole way. He has a good time doing it.'' The tour brings less-experienced dancers closer to their artistic director. ``He rides them a little harder,'' says Boggs.

ABT spends one to three weeks in a city it visits. But the Baryshnikov barnstorming style isn't new. Boggs's experience of waking up in a hotel room and taking five minutes to figure out he was in Tucson, Ariz., must have been common once. In 1943, despite the difficulty of wartime travel, ABT was on the road for 19 weeks, visiting 73 cities, 48 of which were one-night stands.

No one at Baryshnikov's Springfield performance could fail to wish him the best as he undergoes knee surgery Tuesday.

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