Wednesday night’s performance at the Lobero, one of three sold-out nights and the opening of Summerdance’s 10th season, finds Mikhail Baryshnikov back in Santa Barbara for the fifth time in 13 years.
Now 58, Mr. Baryshnikov cuts an elegant figure on stage, with sad, yearning eyes, a face made of diagonals and angles, contrasting with a supple torso and arms that suggest massive strength even when they look light and as mutable as rising smoke. No doubt he is still fascinating to watch, but his Hell’s Kitchen Dance company proved to be equally exciting.
The three works performed Wednesday night come to us as fruits of the Baryshnikov Arts Center’s inaugural year. Rising choreographer Aszure Barton has been artist-in-residence there and opened and closed the evening with two remarkable pieces. “Over/Come” serves as a refreshing opener, a blast of summer color, reminiscent of balmy evenings in outdoor cafes, watching young lovers come and go.
The music fluctuates between American and European artists, from Roger Miller to Kermit Goell, Domenico Titomanglio and Salvatore D’Esposito. The costumes offer an amalgam of ‘50s chic, sleeveless blouses and scarfs, Capri pants, checked shirts and short-shorts, both Roman Holiday and American Graffiti.
The 13-member company, minus Mr. Baryshnikov for this segment but with Ms. Barton dancing, celebrate young love while usurping and undermining its romanticism, gazing into the heart of the matter and finding irrationality and plenty of blood. One of Ms. Barton’s enigmatic gestures that circulates throughout the company is a pantomime of savagely biting a large chunk out of something. Forbidden fruit? Raw meat? Eat your heart out? Or eat someone else’s?
The company pairs up into six different couples throughout “Over/Come,” leaving a solitary dancer to either flirt, act out a jealous fit, or go off on their own to either ignore the other couples or to be judged by them, such as in Ariel Freedman’s impressive solo. Violence, usually occurring alongside amazing shows of endurance, bubbled to the surface of this lovers’ fantasy, humorous and dark in equal measure.
”Years Later,” choreographed by Benjamin Millepied, opened with a tantalizing glimpse of Mr. Baryshnikov, leading to waves of applause and then confused silence when he just as quickly walked off. A large-screen video then played, featuring Mr. Baryshnikov at a barren seaside, in time-lapse, or at a table, the top of which mirrored the horizon.
The flesh-and-blood version returned to dance to solo saxophone accompaniment (a meditative Philip Glass piece), then to shadow dance against video footage of his younger self from his years with the Kirov Ballet. At times his live shadow grew in stature, towering over his youthful figure. At others, he was tiny, kicked away by powerful 1969 legs. In another section, the screen bathed in red, Mr. Baryshnikov followed and complemented the movements of Alexandra Naudet on screen, until the figure was made flesh and appeared in the guise of Ms. Barton, who performed a bittersweet duet.
”Years Later” explores themes of mortality, of competing against the ghosts of youth, and suggests that trying to seduce others is really a form of seducing oneself. The work answers all the questions of viewers who wonder, hope or muse over what one of the world’s greatest dancers still has to offer. Modesty, realism and humor mark this revealing work, which could have just been gimmicky.
Yet mortality hangs its head even lower and broader over Ms. Barton’s closing piece,
“Come In.” Over an achingly sad composition for strings by Vladimir Martynov, we first see a young woman on screen with her head turned from the camera, and the full company, on stage, walk off in a funereal procession. Mr. Baryshnikov interacts with, but never completely joins, the group. Shared movements appear throughout, as if by coincidence or a shared experience that goes beyond the immediate connection.
Ms. Barton’s choreography, which combines grace with short, sharp shocks of incongruity, consistently surprises. More enigmatic gestures come forth–raised fingers, a disconsolate shake of the head, a hand clutched at the throat, omens of drowning and suffocation. The appearance of fold-out chairs and decreased mobility, with projected images of wintry countryside, further meditated on death.
Together with Mr. Martynov’s music, “Come In” produces an exquisite sadness and inevitability. Ms. Barton, Mr. Baryshnikov and the rest of Hell’s Kitchen Dance deserved the long standing ovation they received. If Mr. Baryshnikov is looking for his own “King Lear,” this may be it.