Mikhail Baryshnikov

He takes his theater for a spin.

May means flowers, but this year, it also means art: Mikhail Baryshnikov has organized a series of performances and screenings at his Baryshnikov Arts Center, "May Nights in the Jerome Robbins Theater." (The Wooster Group, the resident company of the center, just concluded its run of North Atlantic. Baryshnikov felt like dancing. It's perfect timing!). Currently, the theater hosts Gaff Aff, by the Swiss duo Zimmermann & de Perrot; the next few weeks feature a revival of Necessary Weather (a stellar 1994 work involving dancers Dana Reitz and Sara Rudner and lighting designer Jennifer Tipton) as well as "Unrelated Solos," a program featuring works by Benjamin Millepied, Alexei Ratmansky, Susan Marshall, David Neumann and Steve Paxton. Yes, Baryshnikov is dancing (in works by Marshall, Millepied and Ratmansky). It's only fitting that he would want to take his spanking-new theater for a spin.

It strikes me that this BAC season seems out of the blue. Is it?
Well, no. We had this gala performance celebrating the opening of the Robbins Theater with the [New York] City Ballet guys dancing. I danced a little "Sarabande" [from Robbins's A Suite of Dances] and then, a few days later, the Wooster Group opened. We didn't really have a chance to experiment with the stage, the depth of it and the acoustics. We were looking to rent [out] the theater in the summer months to bring some cash back and decided to do kind of a soft opening, "May Nights in the Jerome Robbins Theater," with theater and dance, music and film. And it's really also [about] bringing our potentially future audience—the Wooster Group has diehard fans, and now we'll hopefully get a slightly different audience.

What did you think in terms of programming this?
I've been thinking in a very loose and spontaneous way about who I would like to really be a part of these few weeks and I thought of Sara Rudner and Dana Reitz and Jennifer Tipton and Necessary Weather, which was really a very beautiful piece. They happily agreed to revive it. It's an important piece for a new generation of the audience to see—they are fabulous performers, and Jenny's light is really magical. I didn't plan to dance myself. [Laughs] But it's kind of like when you give a first-time adult bike to your kid—you kind of want to take this around the corner yourself first before you give it to him or to her. I did a few projects with David Neumann and we were getting along well and meanwhile I asked Steve Paxton—I give him kind of carte blanche if he wants to do something, because he rarely performs in New York. We e-mailed back and forth and he asked, "What else is happening?" I said, "Well, maybe David and I will do a few solos," and he said, "Oh, I'd rather dance with you guys. I don't want to do the whole thing by myself. Why don't you incorporate my new piece in what you're doing?" We're kind of building the program around him in a way. It's like real dancing with a star. [Laughs]

That's funny.
First of all, it's really a privilege to be on the same stage with him. When I worked with him on the "PastForward" program [a presentation by White Oak Dance Project], I thought, I really admire this guy. He is amazing and always interesting, provocative and a great performer; I'm dying to see what he comes up with. At the same time, I was working on a little project with Susan Marshall, which we realize is kind of coming to a conclusion, and I suggested, "Why don't we show this piece?" And then a couple of others—the Ratmansky and Millepied solos were never done for an audience here. They were shown for fund-raising events, and they were the not-even-finished versions. I said, "These two choreographers are New York based—they are both New York premieres." I never planned it this way; it just happened. I call them "unrelated solos," which they are, and at the same time, they are kind of related. It's three different generations of performers; there is a kind of a different approach to the dancing and choreography. We'll see what will happen.

Are you dancing in Neumann's solos?
No, no, no. There is a little passage in Susan Marshall's piece, but we are not visiting each other's work. David is doing two of his standard solos, and I'm doing three. And there is the longer piece that Steve is doing. I don't know even what the title or the music is. [Laughs] He said, "I have the T-shirt and the pants. That's my costume. That's good enough for you? That's enough information?" I said, "Absolutely." And, of course, another dance-theater project is that Gaff Aff thing [by Zimmermann & de Perrot], which I saw a few years ago in Germany at Pina [Bausch's] festival. I met the guys and I was really very impressed with their work and for a couple of years we were trying to help them find an adequate space for this piece. [Martin Zimmermann] is an amazing performer and there is some kind of Americana in the approach—maybe it's because of silent movies. Maybe it's a kind of Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd; he looks like the wonderful actor Adrien Brody, who was in Polanski's The Pianist—he is very tall, lanky, so expressive and funny, and there's a kind of tragedy in his face. I was really elated the first time I saw him perform, and his partner in crime, so to speak, the DJ [Dimitri de Perrot], is fantastic. The way they work together, the way everything suddenly builds and collapses—there's a lot of theater and movement at the same time. It's a very sensitive approach to performing and stamina. It's an hour long and he is alone onstage, nonstop. I am glad that they are here for the first time—they are opening America for themselves. [Laughs] There is always the first. They are very excited.

You're also screening the new film of N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz. Did you like it?
I haven't seen it yet! I couldn't go to the opening because I was busy; a lot of people liked it a lot. Well, I always liked that piece. We revived it with [American] Ballet Theatre. The first year I was director, we took it in an all-Jerry program to Spoleto [Dance Festival, in Italy]. It was Fancy Free, Opus Jazz, Other Dances and L'Apres-Midi. It was a really good program.

Why is Necessary Weather meaningful for you?
Well, I knew Sara [Rudner] from Twyla [Tharp's] company, and she was always outstanding—when I saw her in Twyla's company, it was always like, Wow. Her dynamics were so different in this piece compared to all of Twyla's work; it was truly, in the best sense, minimal. It was all about shifting positions and less is more—and the light. There was a story that took you in the first few minutes and kept you in their world, and you could really tell any story you wanted. It was like real theater to me. It was like an empty stage, just two people. That's how I met Dana [Reitz], and we worked together and toured together. I worked with Sara, of course, on that HeartBeat piece, and they are friends. I have always admired their ethics, you know? The way they live, the way they dance, the way they treat other people—they are very original people. And God knows if there will be another opportunity beside these May dates [to present Necessary Weather], because this theater, hopefully, will be very busy. At least it might be my last chance to do something like that on a small scale. [Smiles] And that's the way it is.

What do you see in the work of Benjamin Millepied?
Most of all I see intelligence. I don't think he found his own vision yet. He is a very gutsy guy and a very smart guy and a very curious guy—his formula of working is admirable. He knows his music really well. He's not just, Oh, I like—it is a pretty tune, I will choreograph to it. I don't think he is born to be choreographer—one of those things—but he is learning so much and maybe he impresses me in this sense. I thought it was impossible to learn how to choreograph, but he does it somehow; that's how I feel. Intellectually, he decided to himself, "I am a choreographer. I don't quite have it; I don't know where I'm going, but I will do this and I will do that," and the good sign is that dancers love working with him because he makes them look good. Sometimes he kind of confuses with his message, and that's normal. Maybe his pieces are not 100 percent inspired, but he thinks, and he is a great partner—he knows how to move people around, he likes to see the patterns and to work with the designers. He is in the midst of all those things, and I think one day he will be absolutely free with all those elements, and he will come up with a very important piece that will only be him. Just the other day, I saw a run of his new piece [for New York City Ballet], which is also kind of different. I admire that. He is a craftsman; you shouldn't be ashamed of this. He is using classical vocabulary handier than many people around. It's just, by the way, him, Alexei. Billy [Forsythe] does not do [that] anymore. Christopher [Wheeldon] in some instances. Benjamin uses his time at City Ballet [where he is a principal dancer] in the most scholarly and good-sense way. His work needs that one more step, but I highly, highly admire his determination. And, of course, we are all nervous, whether you are a dancer or a choreographer. These two guys, Benjamin and Alexei, are cool cats. There is no sweat. I was watching rehearsals of one of Alexei's pieces a couple of years ago; it was two days before the premiere and there was ten minutes not finished—he was absolutely like, [Quietly] "We'll do this, this and that." Benjamin is a bit more warm-blooded—he is French after all—but still it's kind of amazing because there is a certain chutzpah moment in him. It's like, "I know I will do it right; of course I am nervous, but I refuse to be nervous." He is going for it. He is not afraid of the stage, he is not afraid of the dancers. That's what I see in him. But again, I don't think choreography came naturally. I remember once when I was taking classes with [NYCB] and Jerry [Robbins] said, "Come here, come here." Benjamin was 15 or 16; he said, "Look at this guy—he really listens, he will be something." I don't know how Jerry saw that in him, that muscle, but it's like everything—it's like poetry. Some people start to write little poems at the age of seven; some people open a little later. Everybody can come out with a little poem. Will you become a poet? It's a question mark. And I think Benjamin is climbing up very admirably. Sometimes in my view he is taking too many projects on his plate, but he will learn.

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