It's a pity that the White Oak Dance Project, started in 1990 by Mikhail Baryshnikov and choreographer Mark Morris, is mainly thought of as a showcase for the mid-career Baryshnikov.
The dancer electrified audiences after his 1974 defection from the Soviet Union with his work in two great American ballet companies. Since the creation of White Oak, he has obviously put great effort into making a democratic dance company on the order of Morris's own. That he is having as little success as Russian President Boris Yeltsin in moving away from old systems is only partially his fault.
The project, named after the White Oak Plantation belonging to a wealthy Florida patron, has a wonderful premise. Instead of turning mature dancers out to pasture in their 30s and 40s, why not build on their life experience and changing bodies? The project was to be collaborative and to draw on dancers from some of the best modern companies. The dances were to be culled from brand-name choreographers like Twyla Tharp and Merce Cunningham, with some experimental stuff thrown in.
I did not see the group's earlier work, but I understand that audiences initially felt cheated because they didn't see enough of Baryshnikov. People who had missed him on the stages of American Ballet Theatre or the New York City Ballet wanted to take home memories of a dance legend.
At a recent Boston performance, part of the Bank of Boston's aptly named Celebrity Series, the audience hung on Baryshnikov's every step in the solo "Pergolesi," choreographed for him by Tharp. He held onlookers completely enthralled with every low, controlled jump and turn, and they gasped and applauded.
There's nothing wrong with the adulation showered on Baryshnikov, but in "Pergolesi" he crossed over the line from confidence to narcissism. He hot-dogged his way through the charmingly puckish choreography, a knight in white satin. Tharp, in her 1992 autobiography, "Push Comes to Shove," remarked that she learned two things about "Misha" when she first made dances for and with him in 1976: One, that he was "unbelievably eager for new movement," and two, "his concentration span was practically nil."
With "Pergolesi," which anchored the middle part of the Boston program, Tharp indulges Baryshnikov's fantasy of being a Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. But it's hard to picture Astaire and Kelly patronizing an audience by directing its applause in the manner he did.
Perhaps Tharp was parodying the Russian star's Adonis-like status and mocking his vanity. She throws in sly references to classic ballets he has danced triumphantly in the past. One could only wish that Baryshnikov had displayed his gifts with a little more humility. He may have been simply obliging his fans. But his star turn, despite the masterly way in which he performed it, detracts from the powerful ensemble feeling generated by the other dancers.
The audience, for its part, was ecstatic.
Applause was also generous for the star's fellow dancers, who performed with polish, precision, and complete professionalism. The evening's real delight was "Jocose," by pioneering choreographer Hanya Holm. It was danced to Maurice Ravel's "Sonata for Violin and Piano," performed live by Larry Shapiro and Michael Boriskin.
"Jocose" contains no wasted choreography. Its high energy and constantly changing patterns keep viewers from looking away even for a moment, for fear of missing something. As it careens through swingy, waltzy, spinning movements, the dancers' personalities begin to emerge. Eventually the music takes a turn into honkytonk, and they become like pieces of well-oiled machinery, all pulsing gears and thumping pistons. In one unusual move, the performers bump along the floor as if bounced by an earth tremor.
Another crowd-pleaser was "Chickens," a rare opportunity to see serious dancers make flapping, crooning goofballs of themselves and love it. The only accompaniment to Charles Moulton's choreography was a recorded monologue by David Cale, a simple tale about embracing diversity.
The dancers, Keith Sabado in particular, slipped in and out of moods and styles with chameleon grace - and quiet skill.