THE White Oak Project's splashy debut gala last month at the 4,000-seat Wang Center here represented more than an evening of entertainment by some fine dancers. The performance kicked off an ongoing national tour (through Nov. 18) and celebrated the tenth anniversary of the Boston presenting organization Dance Umbrella, which has built a strong constituency for contemporary dance in the city. Specifically targeted as a beneficiary of the Oct. 24 fundraiser was Dance Umbrella's plan to provide a Boston base for the activities of Mark Morris. The flamboyant choreographer, still based in Brussels for the remainder of this season, has been very visible on this side of the Atlantic for the past several months. When Morris's three-year contract with the Th'e^atre de la Monnaie comes to an end, he wants to return to the States, but, given the precariousness of arts funding and politics, the exact nature of his next working situation is undetermined. Dance Umbrella would like to have him for 10 weeks a year, and he's recently announced a long summer residency at Jacob's Pillow in the Berkshires. Just who will constitute the dancers in the new Mark Morris Dance Group isn't clear either, and perhaps that's where White Oak comes in.
White Oak Project stars Mark Morris's dances as much as any individual performer. It's significant to me that Morris gets top billing in the program, while White Oak company director Mikhail Baryshnikov lists himself down with the troops, alphabetically.
Mark Morris is not especially good at bringing out the individual qualities of dancers. He's known for the heterogeneity of the body types and personalities that he assembles in his dances. But in a whole program of his work, where he has some of the most distinctive talents of our time at his disposal, including the great Baryshnikov, what you notice is how well they all blend, not how any of them shines.
Morris uses their physical properties to make his choreographic displays. He even calls attention to discrepancies in stature and bearing, but he doesn't push the dancers technically. If anything, he downplays their specialized technical skills.
So in ``Going Away Party'' three sprawly, gangly couples are at a hoedown, and Baryshnikov goes partnerless. He plays the outsider, the city slicker. He trails along, trying to make it with each girl in turn, and even attempts singlehandedly to be the fourth side in a square dance. But his solo gives him away as maladjusted, alien to the high-spirited gallopings of the others.
``Pas de Poisson'' carries the idea of individual-as-misfit even further. Baryshnikov, Morris, and Kate Johnson, who fortunately has reconsidered her premature retirement last spring from the Paul Taylor Dance Company, are three raisins in a pod. They do almost identical movements to a two-piano reduction of Erik Satie's score for the avant-garde film that formed the entr'acte to the scandalous 1924 ballet ``Rel^ache.''
The dancers couldn't be less alike. Morris is big and florid, flinging his long black locks, curling his wrists on every gesture. Johnson is small and crisp and always dances with a twinkle in her eye. Baryshnikov seems incapable of comment, malicious or otherwise; his instinct is to fulfill the movement as purely as possible. These three prance and make gnomelike postures to the music's pleasing, disjointed phrases, sometimes repeating a phrase up to eight times. Significant connections could be stirring between the dancers - a chase, an invitation - but nothing develops. Like the music, the dance is a succession of whims.
You could say ``Ten Suggestions'' (Tcherepnin) is one colossal whim, a solo for Baryshnikov in which he playfully experiments with movement and props in pink satin pajamas. He shoots out of the dark with a double tour en l'air, and after that he does slow somersaults, poses with a hoop, flourishes a bit of ribbon. It's a gossamer dance, and Baryshnikov did it beautifully. The audience, waiting for thunder and lightning, gave it one bow.
All eight White Oak dancers meld in ``Motorcade,'' the newest Morris creation and the most substantial work on the fluffy program. Morris is, I think, at his best when choreographing symphonically, and here his movement and floor patterns absorb a romantic propulsion from Saint-Sa"ens' Septet for strings, piano and trumpet.
Especially in the second movement, an ingeniously designed quartet where the second set of four dancers form a complementary design around the original when the music repeats, the fundamental compatability of the dancers is a great asset. You simply don't think of them as Baryshnikov and Johnson and six-foot Rob Besserer, Tharpian whiz-kid Jamie Bishton, Boston Ballet dancers Denise Pons and William Pizzuto, and lyrical modern dancers Peggy Baker and Nancy Colahan.
So back to my original question. Is White Oak aiming to be a permanent dance company after its tour of 17 US cities? Although Baryshnikov appeared in every number, I don't think of this as a vanity company, the Star-and-Friends type of thing. Other stellar dancers who are slated to join later on the tour include David Parsons and American Ballet Theater soloist Kathleen Moore, and it would be fascinating to see this ensemble develop a more stylistically diverse repertory. Twyla Tharp, where are you? Or is White Oak more of a holding action to keep Mark Morris's name before the public? If the initial flood of press gush is any indication, it certainly will do that.
The White Oak Project tour continues with performances tonight in Savannah, Ga.; tomorrow in Pensacola, Fla.; Nov. 9 in Tampa; Nov. 11 in Miami; Nov. 13 in Atlanta; Nov. 15 in East Lansing, Mich.; Nov. 17 in Columbus, Ohio.; and Nov. 18 in Louisville, Ky.