The Critics: Dance: The little bloke of calm

White Oak Dance Project Sadler's Wells, London Tripsichore Yoga Theatre Riverside Studios, London
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The Independent Culture
'In dance," says Mikhail Baryshnikov, "the hardest things are the simplest: walking, standing still." It's the kind of statement you expect from a phenomenally gifted virtuoso. Baryshnikov, now 51, gave up princely ballet roles 10 years ago, and since then he's been trying to wean his public off the expectation of double tours and powerful leaps to settle for the quieter, more compact rewards of American modern dance. So, yes, walking and standing still, in principle, take on new significance. But who in a million years would think he'd want to prove that dictum to the letter? Come the first interval at Sadler's Wells, the fans were muttering about refunds.

For his only solo of the evening, Baryshnikov appeared in a long yellow samurai skirt in a piece of extended Japanese posturing that took minimalism almost to the limit. Dance with Three Drums and Flute, created for the dancer last year by the Kabuki artist Tomasuro Banda, begins with him taking little white-socked steps along a diagonal, his arms stuck out in front like scissors. Human yowls and drum bangs punctuate the silence as he changes direction, lifts a foot, turns his head slowly through 180 degrees, all with Zen-like concentration. Towards the end - it felt like hours - there are flurries of exertion in a few dagger-sharp warrior jumps and turns. But that was it: walking and standing still.

The trouble with White Oak Dance Project, named after the swanky Florida estate where Baryshnikov has studios, is that it's a star vehicle trying to pretend it isn't. The intended focus is the choreography. What the audience wants is Misha. But Misha, though lean and boyish still, has to pace himself, and the bulk of the Sadler's Wells programme was performed by others in the group - five fine American women well able to match the master in technique, if not celebrity.

All this is understandable, however grumpy it made the fans. What was less understandable was the choice of programme. What an opportunity to make new friends for post-modern dance! But no. Three out of the four works opened in gloomy silence. One was silent all the way through, and Trisha Brown's 1979 Glacial Decoy, though clean and serene, is hardly a piece to set the bar-room buzzing. Robert Rauschenberg's sepia photos of tractor tyres, radiator grilles etc blink along a row of screens. The dancers, wearing white pleated tents, perform opaque rituals half- on, half-off the stage, as if there were a line of them hidden in the wings.

Patience was rewarded, finally, in Mark Morris's The Argument - a series of marital "conversations" in the fallout from a row. Trust Morris to come up with the goods: glorious music (Schumann, played on stage), humour, narrative grist and bags of joyous, juicy steps. Here, at last, we saw Baryshnikov in full flow - a stunning stage presence and a dancer of huge range. He can do the light charm of Fred Astaire. He can come on meaty and strong, despite being shorter than his women. He can make you exquisitely aware of the slightest flexing of his middle finger. If he wants to take his public with him into more difficult dance terrain, maybe he just needs to come here more often.

The prospect of an evening of yoga on stage did not, I confess, fill me with eager anticipation. But Tripsichore's "Trips to Ecstasy" show, while falling some way short of its title, quickly scotched any fears about wholemeal types upending themselves like hibernating bats for an hour and a bit. Tripsichore is made up of sleek, beautiful people whose biographies read like a fanzine I'd like to subscribe to. Diana's favourite drink is "frozen vodka". Her words of wisdom: "Never fly Indian Airlines". The main thing to know about their "performance" is that they barely stop still for a second.

In the Desert Grace Suite, they enact a shadowy Indian myth about a raj and a goddess which gets them into positions an imaginative midwife might find useful. In Thoroughly Modern Coupling a woman in slithery silver appears to fly, suspended at the hips by a man's feet. Intricate yoga poses flow seamlessly, like joined-up writing 5,000 years old. The postures themselves possess qualities of harmony and bliss. String them together and the result is serenely absorbing.