A sublime vision

His phrasing's delicious, his delivery so subtle. And at 48, his talent glows undiminished. Louise Levene thrills to the magic of Mikhail Baryshnikov
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The Independent Culture
We all knew why we were there. We may have listened politely to talk of a democratically run company of excellent dancers and new choreography but our 2,300 bums are on the edge of our seats in order to see Mikhail Baryshnikov. And we aren't just there to witness the wreck of a legend (like Sinatra's last audiences), but to savour the substantial remains of a sublime talent. Not yet, though. First we watch Ruthlyn Salomons's Quiet as It's Kept ... danced by four beautifully saronged women to Heitor Villa-Lobos. The piece is pleasing and well-crafted but it wouldn't pack the largest theatre in England without what follows.

There he stands, nattily dressed in starched collar, sleeve suspenders and waistcoat like a fastidious Edwardian bank clerk. He launches into Mark Morris's Three Russian Preludes danced to Shostakovich. Morris's 1995 choreography glories in each of Baryshnikov's gifts, exploiting them to the full in dizzy chains of turns that let him spiral across the stage like a beautifully tailored tornado or in jumps that show his exquisite little Kirov-trained feet that pinch the stage in perfectly placed landings. But it's always been more than technique. A great actor doesn't merely speak the words well but delivers them as if he had personally thought of them. Baryshnikov shares that ability. He doesn't simply reproduce the steps; the phrasing is so delicious, the delivery so subtle in mood and execution, he seems more an incarnation of the choreographer's vision than a mere performer acting out his wishes. Morris's wish seems to be for a grand pastiche of the Russian manner and his instrument delivers it with aplomb. Baryshnikov dominates the stage with the easy assurance of a Petipa prince but throws away his effects with the insouciance of Astaire.

The response was ecstatic. The effect on the audience was like a free glass of champagne and they headed for the bar chuffed and exhilarated, conscious that they were privileged to have seen him. Audiences don't feel this way about Baryshnikov merely so they can drop names. The most ignorant theatregoer's instincts tell them when the performance is superleague, just as this audience knew that the charming home-made choreography by company members was a mere makeweight: the chopped egg padding out the caviare.

Merce Cunningham is not a hard-boiled egg, however, and the performance of his playful 1953 masterpiece Septet was very strong, with a line-up that included White Oak founder member Rob Besserer and former Tharp dancer Jamie Bishton. It was followed by more Misha, this time in the 1942 Jose Limn solo Chaconne. Dressed in matt black against a black background, Baryshnikov managed to shimmer like a darting flame that, at 48, still seems to burn undiminished. For all the pride and pleasure one takes in seeing him dance, one feels oddly sad. Sad because one day he won't be able to do it any more, sad because seeing him dance spoils us for all the dancers we will see until we see him again, and sad because in a few sweet minutes it will all be over.

n White Oak Dance Project is at the London Coliseum, WC2 to Sat. Booking: 0171-632 8300

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