at the Auditorium Theatre, July 14-17

The choreography was top drawer, the dancing was superb, the audiences were large and enthusiastic. The music was classical, the musicians were accomplished–in fact, the White Oak Dance Project performances were in such good taste and so well done that I found myself looking for the perverse, for the artistic equivalent of thrusting your hand into the garbage disposal and grinding it instead of onion skins and carrot peelings. Of course the perverse isn’t necessarily self-destructive, though it often has that effect–it’s anything stubbornly wayward. And the amazing thing is, White Oak provides that too.

If you’re Twyla Tharp–a very perverse person–and you’re choreographing for someone as famous and well loved as Mikhail Baryshnikov, you have two choices. You can pretend he’s not who he is, or you can shove who he is in the audience’s face. Tharp opts for the latter in Pergolesi, performed on the first of two programs at the Auditorium. Ostensibly a solo, Pergolesi is really a trio for three show-offs: the dancer, the choreographer, and the composer. But Tharp is the one who dominates, sampling Pergolesi, making Misha her creature. This dance is the height of bad taste, and I loved it.

Pergolesi has a certain boastful musicality, and the fast footwork of the opening section shows off Baryshnikov’s quickness and his soft, strong feet; but what we mainly take away from the dance is the way the dancer thumbs his nose at us, playing with our expectations of a great but aging performer. Turning, Baryshnikov pretends to fall off his center or get dizzy; he continues a successful series of turns until the audience applauds, then looks at us disgustedly–he couldn’t quit, it seems, until we clapped. At other times we feel chastised for our boorish habit of applauding tricks. In one bravura section Baryshnikov greets and shepherds an invisible partner (the dance was originally performed, two years ago, by Baryshnikov and Tharp), revealing the emptiness of the ballet dancer’s deference to the woman he supposedly adores. Pergolesi isn’t really a dance–it’s a joke, a sport. It was born of the theatrical context, and it will die when Baryshnikov stops dancing.

I found Mark Morris’s Mosaic and United deeply annoying at first. Coming after Pergolesi and an intermission, its sawing string music (Henry Cowell’s Quartet no. 3 and, later, Quartet no. 4) and the dancers’ dour faces and odd movement seemed to epitomize dark, dreary modern dance. At one point the descending whine of the strings made me think I was being dragged down to hell by mosquitoes. Ish! as we used to say in Minnesota, where the mosquitoes are bigger than cows.

But like Tharp, Morris is having his way with us, leading us down the garden path of serious art and coming out at the other end with serious fun. All the angst of the first part, revealed in quivering limbs and life-denying gestures–hands pushed out palms up or heads bowed dejectedly with the hands wrapped around the neck–is transformed as the dance goes on. In fact Mosaic and United (named after Cowell’s two quartets) is a masterpiece of transformation: the dance evolves almost imperceptibly into something joyous. The movement remains odd–dancers in a tableau pick themselves up and scuttle across the stage in formation–but the end of this piece has the lilt and rush and sometimes the look of folk dance, with a forward impetus defined by a movement in which the dancers swing their arms back, fling their torsos forward, and kick one foot behind them. By the end their flexed elbows and wrists no longer look distorted or dark.

The other two works on this program are far more polite but amazing in their own ways. Hanya Holm made Jocose when she was in her late 80s, in 1981 and 1984, yet this is an incredibly youthful, even juvenile dance. Holm captures perfectly the skittery attraction/repulsion between the sexes at a certain young age, and her five dancers–three women and two men–switch partners in a shell game as quick as any played on the el. But there’s no malice in her merry dance, just a clean, pretty classicism and a big dollop of almost drunken silliness.

Joachim Schlomer’s Blue Heron, the only piece danced on both programs, is well put together and in its way mysteriously evocative. Performed by all nine White Oakers (Raquel Aedo, Baryshnikov, Rob Besserer, Nancy Colahan, John Gardner, Patricia Lent, Kevin O’Day, Keith Sabado, and Ruthlyn Salomons) and set to Alfred Schnittke’s Suite in Olden Style, it features satiny corps work and solos embellished with quirky gestures, especially for the hands–one hand pulled wriggling by the thumb, for instance, like a fish swimming through air. There are images suggesting burial and loss (is this an AIDS lamentation?), but the dance overall is lightweight, merely atmospheric. The motif of dainty women mincing across stage, sometimes veiled like ghostly flappers, is coy and cute, and the piece ends by vanishing into thin air.

The second program opened with Merce Cunningham’s 1970 Signals. His work in some ways positively defines the perverse–he cuts the audience no slack at all. Nothing about Signals is easy: there’s no pretty music (no music at all, according to the jazz critic I met in the lobby, though there is a score of found sounds), no pretty dancing, no drama. I should have loved it, but I hated it (there’s perversity for you). Cunningham’s much-vaunted elegance puts me off: he’s theoretical, cerebral. His work looks to me like a desert of restraint, like classroom exercises in alignment and placement. Critic Arlene Croce wrote in 1974 that Cunningham’s choreography is best seen not in theaters but in “big, open rooms” and at close range, and perhaps that was the problem here. By the end Signals warmed up a bit, but to me it was mostly desicated and cold, like an orange sucked dry, then frozen.

By contrast there’s something artless about Kevin O’Day’s Quartet for IV (Or Sometimes One, Two or Three), a natural boisterousness and enthusiasm. O’Day has often performed Tharp’s work–in fact this is his choreographic debut–and he’s got the Tharpian wiggle to prove it. Yet he has a humorous musicality all his own, especially plain in his solo: with his frizzy hair and bell-bottoms, he seems a hippie soul dancing to some wigged-out rhythm all his own. Kevin Volans’s mostly fast-paced string music suits O’Day’s rapid style well, but somehow the effect is never calculated.

Jerome Robbins’s A Suite of Dances, a solo for Baryshnikov, is the exception that proves the rule: it’s a class act, and I loved it. A cellist (Wendy Sutter) is seated onstage to play portions of Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello; her gracious interactions with Baryshnikov set the dignified tone. And yet this suite of dances isn’t completely dignified–it contains echoes of Robbins’s jazz choreography in West Side Story, of the sailors in Fancy Free. Clean, simple, and completely fluid, it reveals Baryshnikov’s genius as a dancer, the utter integration of every bone and muscle in his body. There are a few people who are dancers right down to their toenails, who move with an incredible unity and attention to detail, who always seem to take the right line and hold it for just the right amount of time. It’s as if another part of them were out in the audience telling them what to do. Baryshnikov can raise an arm overhead and create something sad and wondrous. This is an artistry beyond elegance, and far beyond politeness and prettiness; it’s beyond words, beyond thought. It lives in the bones, where dancer and audience alike can feel it unmistakably.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jacques Moatti.