WHEN YOU'RE as famous as Mikhail Baryshnikov, you are entitled to your own showcase company. White Oak Dance Project, founded nearly 10 years ago, completes Baryshnikov's canny transition from youthfully airborne ballet prince to mesmerising modern dancer. Its arrival at Sadler's Wells for four nights follows past London visits and repeats the format of Baryshnikov's item (in solos or ensembles) alternating with pieces for the rest of the company. This time, though, Baryshnikov is the only man, surrounded by a harem of five women. Is he merely living up to his Lothario reputation? Or is he now afraid of unflattering comparisons with younger men?
At 51, Baryshnikov looks fit and lean. However, his Japonaiserie solo, Dance with Three Drums and Flutes, created for him last year by the Kabuki onagata (female impersonator) Tamasaburo Bando, threatened at first to backfire with a Western audience. A yellow-and-black-skirted costume resembling a pregnant parrot, male yeowing wails, along with flute and percussion, and minimal movement presented with Zen-like ritualistic concentration, provoked titters from some quarters. But by the second half, we were completely won over, as the choreography expanded in breadth and variety, and we saw a wonderful flurry of turns and angular warrior jumps.
Mark Morris's The Argument (1999), set to Schumann's Five Pieces in Folk Style, gives further evidence that Baryshnikov remains a stunning dance presence, with an explosive leap, spearing spins and a magnificently articulate body. He and three women (Raquel Aedo, Ruthlyn Sal- omons, Susan Shields) perform a suite of dances like overlapping monologues and conversations, evoking the different moods of the music (played by an onstage cellist and pianist). The Argument makes a wonderful closer to the programme.
In fact, I enjoyed all the pieces (not always the case with White Oak). Baryshnikov has assembled a diverse mix of choreographers and a handsome, contrasted bunch of dancers, well able to hold their own in technique. Trisha Brown's Glacial Decoy (1979), the evening's one known quantity, has black-and-white flies by Robert Rauschenberg, and silence, in which four women seem to act out games of hide-and-seek. The middle section presents a duo centre stage, but elsewhere the dance almost seems to belong to the wings, its edges spilling out on to the stage, as dancers enter and exit from opposing sides.
Lucy Guerin's Two Lies (1977) also plays games, its choreography a twilight- zone transmutation of fundamental ballet premisses and its structure an exploration of the notion of deja vu. The three women (Emanuele Phuon, Aedo, Shields) move like automata whose activity balances on a fine edge between parody and deconstruction. The effect is weird but gripping, from an Australian choreographer little seen here. We don't get to see Baryshnikov often enough, either. Catch him, if there are any tickets left.
Till 12 June. Booking: 0171-863 8000. A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper