17 May 2009

Swan, Late

I love Mikhail Baryshnikov.  In fact, I love him so much I might add him to my list of things I love, which is the list of those things or people I love absolutely and unchangeably:

1.  Water
2.  Brushing my teeth
3.  Target
4.  Martin Sheen
5.  Mikhail Baryshnikov

This post,  however, is not about the list of things I love.  It is about Mikhail Baryshnikov.  In today's New York Times there was an article about him, and it prompted me to think about him again, something I do from time to time anyway.

I have always like Baryshnikov.  Part of this no doubt has to do with the fact that he was the dancer when I was little:  he was the latest Russian defector, and the latest sensation in the ballet world. He was also very glamorous, with one of those elegant, soulful, vaguely sad Russian faces one sometimes sees (although, in fact, he is not 
Russian:  he's Latvian).  I didn't find him good-looking then, but he certainly had a striking face.

I'm not as shallow as all that, however, and the real reason I've always like Baryshnikov, or at least half of it, is that he is literally a magnificent dancer.  I think he's probably the most complete male ballet dancer of the 20th century - he has emotionality, technique, musicality, and grace.  In this Le Corsaire clip, for example, you can see the way his landings are absolutely certain, in comparison to Corella at the beginning here; but in this Giselle you can see the way he can treat the steps and music very gently (look at the head in those attitude turns, for example); and in this Push Comes to Shove you not only see him being playful, but also see a moment of extreme technical skill at 7:54 or so. I also like the fact that, as Push Comes to Shove shows, he was interested in pushing himself beyond ballet, into areas that required real stretching technically and physically, as here.  For me all this is summed up by the hands in this photo (I'm sorry; I couldn't enlarge it):

These hands look as if they're in motion, changing from one position to another, and even in that case they're remarkably elegant, relaxed, and graceful.  But as I've looked at the photo more closely, I've gradually come to the conclusion that the hands are not in motion; the arms are being held in that position as the legs move.  And if that's the case, that's even more remarkable, to create a tensed position that looks so relaxed, a firm position that looks
so soft, and a static position that looks so passing.  That requires both great technical skill and great softness.

But as he got older, and I grew up and became a person, I started to like Baryshnikov for other reasons, too.  For one thing, he's one of those lucky people who got better looking as he got older:  more intelligent, more complex, and way more sexy.  As it happens, I generally find older people more interesting to look at than younger people, and often more attractive. Young people don't have much in their faces, and as a result they usually don't hold my attention for very long, or in any depth.  But they are usually better-looking.  This is not true of Baryshnikov, and I like that.

What I like most of all, though, is the fact that he has kept on dancing.  I don't just like this because he was a wonderful dancer, and because as he's kept dancing he's investigated new forms, so that his dancing is now both wonderful and original and rich (by the way, the Baryshnikov in this clip is 60).  I like it because he's kept vital and active and interested in the kind of dancer he can be as he gets older, and although he knows he can't be who he was before, he seems eager to explore and engage with the person he is now.  Probably the coolest thing he's been in recently for me, for example, is a piece choreographed by Benjamin Millepied (isn't that a great name for a dancer/choreographer?), in part of which Baryshnikov dances in front of, and sometimes facing, footage of himself as a young dancer, mirroring or imitating the positions and steps.

Please note  that the older person in this photo looks much more interesting than the younger one  behind him.

When I first heard about this piece, I thought, Christ, who would do that?  Why would a ballet dancer, in particular, want to stand face-to-face with the physicality they were?  It seemed to me then a very brave thing to do, and brave precisely because of what Baryshnikov's coming face-to-face with that former self was a coming face-t0-face with.  Thinking about it today, however, I read it totally differently.  Certainly that young Baryshnikov has purity of line and an almost crystalline cleanliness and perfection that this older Baryshnikov does not, but this older Baryshnikov has a complexity and power that the younger does not.  And this power does not come from increased depth - or at least it doesn't come simply from increased depth - but rather in some way, it seems to me, simply from being older - this older Baryshnikov has a sense of assuredness, of control and surety, that the younger cannot.  In this reading, the piece becomes not an exercise in brave masochism, but rather an exercise in confidence or, more simply but I think more accurately, one in simple enjoyment.  Sure, Baryshnikov isn't that guy anymore, but he's this guy, now, and this guy need not regret that guy.  Indeed, this guy can take pleasure from that guy, because that guy possessed attributes magnificent at the time, and still magnificent now, but this older guy, an iteration of the same man (and who doesn't take pride in their own successes, after all?), himself has so much to offer, and in some ways so much more, that he can face his younger self as an equal, and perhaps even a superior.

So snaps to you, Baryshnikov.  Yet another reason to like you.

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