Baryshnikov as One of the Company

MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV and Mark Morris founded the White Oak Dance Project four years ago, but despite 10 national and international tours the troupe has never fitted in a New York performance - until now.

They recently spent a sold-out week at Lincoln Center's State Theater performing two separate programs, and the immediate response is that they waited far too long. The White Oak may be a superstar vehicle, but unlike ``Nureyev and Friends,'' in which the other superstar of dance toured during the latter part of his career, it has an artistic integrity in its own right.

The White Oak Dance Project is currently composed of eight dancers, including Baryshnikov, who are accompanied by their own six-piece chamber music ensemble. The first program consisted of works by such luminaries as Morris, Twyla Tharp, and Merce Cunningham. The first piece, Morris's ``Mosaic and Untitled,'' danced by Rob Besserer, Nancy Colahan, John Gardner, Kate Johnson, and Kevin O'Day, was performed to music by Henry Cowell. It is one of Morris's more pedestrian efforts, fairly untheatrical and containing little in the way of vibrancy or interesting patterns of movement. It is generally somber compared to this choreographer's other more exuberant work.

Baryshnikov was the soloist in Tharp's ``Pergolisi,'' and what a treat it was to see this legendary dancer having the time of his life performing pieces that revealed his technical brilliance and sheer charisma.

Dressed in simple white slacks and turtleneck by designer Isaac Mizrahi, Baryshnikov performed a series of witty variations on ballet steps, often with deliberate missteps, that served as both marvelous parody and blatant virtuosity. By the time he was pretending to dance with an invisible partner, the audience was howling with delight. Other performers could dance this piece on the same technical level (although not many); probably no one else could perform it with the same degree of wit and humor.

The star returned as part of the ensemble in the final piece, Cunningham's ``Signals,'' dating from 1970. Performed to an electronic score often consisting of little more than blips and squiggles, it, like the Morris piece, was a lesser example of this choreographer's work, needlessly attenuated and abstruse. Staged in an elaborately casual style, with some dancers lounging on chairs while others performed, clad in rehearsal clothes, it did provide shining moments for Baryshnikov, Colahan, and Besserer.

At 46, Baryshnikov is recognizing both his dance limitations and his increasing desire to explore the artistic boundaries of the art. He is extending his career with grace and intelligence. And in a field where no one has stepped forward to succeed him in terms of talent and audience appeal, that career is still very much appreciated.

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