DANCE / Little acorns in the shadow of one mighty oak

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The Independent Culture
MIKHAIL Baryshnikov made an unscheduled stop at Sadler's Wells on Friday with his White Oak Dance Project, and was the star of the show. He could hardly be otherwise. At 45, he has found a niche for himself performing dull works with a troupe wheeled out of the arthritic ward. He is a beacon of light in a swamp of his own making.

When Baryshnikov moved to New York City Ballet in the summer of 1978, he was surprised to find that the star of the company was not a leading dancer but the choreographer, George Balanchine. So when in 1990 he teamed up with the talented choreographer Mark Morris to found White Oak, he seems to have made sure he would be king.

White Oak is Baryshnikov's dice with reality. Life is short for dancers, and while he may no longer be the romantic hero, Baryshnikov is still supreme. The audience stamped in delight; just as with Nureyev at about the same age, it voted with its feet. Baryshnikov is still every bit the star, a luminous presence. So what's the trick?

Baryshnikov has an aura, a sort of outer layer of charisma and sex appeal that are as much part of him as his physical grace. Anyone who sees him reels off into superlatives, and there is no reason to stop now. Whereas Nureyev made a fool of himself by dancing the great classical roles longer than he should have, Baryshnikov chooses carefully. The pieces he performs appear, quite simply, designed to overcome the limitations of the older dancer. None offers much of a challenge.

In Twyla Tharp's solo Pergolesi, with music attributed to Giovanni Battista Pergolesi and distinctively Baroque, Baryshnikov has his finest moments. Tharp is a skittish choreographer who makes enjoyable dances. Indeed, her Push comes to Shove is Baryshnikov's signature. In Pergolesi he shows his balance, control and weightlessness. A strong streak of character shines through the insouciant performer who, midway, takes his bows, and as the applause dies down, moves centre stage to take more bows to an imaginary audience in the wings. He peeps quizzically over a shoulder at the real audience, his co-conspirators, as if to verify

the adulation.

Then he almost becomes the classical hero with a near-fouette or whipping turn, but Tharp reins him in, eventually allowing the ballerino to live in wide turning circles. But he hams it up, laughing at his self-parody before skidding off. There is a moment when he is frozen, legs together, anticipating. Nothing moves. And then we notice his white trousers trembling. He plays for laughs and gets them.

Lack of invention takes the choreographer out of the limelight and certainly allows Baryshnikov to shine. But it need not be like this; after all, many exciting works are being created for Netherlands Dance's Company's over- 40 group. This programme bent over backwards not to stretch the star too far, and suffered for it. We had two bland pieces by Mark Morris, and a piece each from Hanya Holm and Tharp, all Americans. Of the four pieces, two are solos for Baryshnikov. It's him people come to see, after all.

Morris's works are from his Lean Cuisine range. The first piece, an appetiser called Three Preludes, set to Gershwin, has Baryshnikov in black with Al Jolson white gloves, the sometimes solemn, sometimes funny minstrel. The finale was also Morris's, Mosaic and United, a cerebral piece for five dancers in colourful silk shirts who did a lot of walking about and pointing. It was only the whiff of Indian classical dance in the upturned or slapping feet that hinted at Morris's famed stylistic mix.

Jocose, a rather dreary piece by Holm, was the only piece in

which Baryshnikov did not appear. The five dancers are dreamy, sleepy even, but spring awake, three women galloping into the wings, returning with a wry Charleston.

Ravel's rhythms dictate: dancers move idiosyncratically to the music, slapping a forehead on the beat, bobbing heads to another. Baryshnikov's other trick is to choose dancers who are in no danger of showing him up, even if that were possible. No one moves as well as he does, and these moved rather less well than most.