"I never thought I would dance for so long," said Mikhail Baryshnikov.
At 48, Baryshnikov remains one of the most extraordinary dancers of this century. He continues to receive high praise for his dancing, as he has done since he was an 18-year-old living in Russia."Encouragement from Merce (Cunningham) and Martha Graham, even Mark (Morris) and Twyla (Tharp) and Paul Taylor, gave me a new life," he said in April. "It's a very exciting life, full of surprises and challenges that keep me on my toes."
Unlike Rudolf Nureyev, another great 20th-century Russian dancer who danced classical roles deep into middle age with depressing results, Baryshnikov knew when the days of white tights and leading romantic roles in ballet were over. He then switched to modern dance.
His principal vehicle has been the White Oak Dance Project, which Baryshnikov founded in 1989 with Morris, a Seattle native. The free-floating company, which lives solely on box-office receipts, comprises only senior dancers who are former members of prestigious modern dance companies. The flexible, ever-evolving group has toured the world with its eclectic repertory.
"We never plan ahead more than four to five months because I hate to tie myself up with obligations I may be unable to fulfill," Baryshnikov said. "My views of work keep changing. I don't want to say that in January of next year we are going to tour for two months in Europe, dancing this and this and that, when in September I may decide I would like to sit down and work at home. So, we work from project to project and try to avoid any kind of institutional overtone."
As artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre in the 1980s, Baryshnikov had his fill of problems plaguing American dance companies.
"As dancers, we don't have to prove anything to anyone. At least I don't. I want to do work that is important for me, and hopefully for the audience," he said.
A recent set of concerts in Seattle came under the umbrella of White Oak but in a different format. The program was titled "Solos," and featured Baryshnikov and Dana Reitz in a program of solo works.
"To do solos is physically quite different," Baryshnikov said. "It's also different in terms of concentration and the kind of clarity you have to give to each piece. For this, the two of us plus the pianist have to deliver the evening. The idea is kind of ambitious. I've always admired people who do evenings by themselves. I've done solos, but always there has been the support of other dancers. Here, you are more exposed. The pressure is there, but we are excited."
The evening of solos is yet another adventure for Baryshnikov, whose career has been marked by taking risks. In 1978, four years after his defection from the then-Soviet Union, he joined New York City Ballet to work with George Balanchine. He also championed the cross-breeding of once deadly enemies: ballet and modern dance.
Thus, his huge admiration for Cunningham.
"I admire him," Baryshnikov said of Cunningham. "He's an extremely smart guy who learned from the best tradition, that of Martha Graham. He was obviously influenced by classical dance. He and John were uncompromising, never bending to public taste. They were devoted to their vision. He combined Martha's sense of theater with classical technique. He was interested in the geometrics of 19th-century ballet, especially those of (Marius) Petipa, whom he admired. Merce invented a new vocabulary with which he achieved extraordinary results.
"Merce and I are about the oldest dancers around," Baryshnikov laughed. Cunningham is 77 this year.
And what about retirement?
"White Oak might mutate to something else, and I would be involved in that," Baryshnikov said. "Maybe I will drift backstage to begin a choreographic laboratory. If I stop dancing tomorrow, it will be just fine. I've done it. I'll be a big boy and not cry."