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Heights of Calm
By Mae G. Banner

White Oak Dance Project
Jacob’s Pillow, June 20

The White Oak Dance Project, led by Mikhail Baryshnikov as first among equals, opened the summer season at Jacob’s Pillow with a time-bending program of beautiful new works that fulfilled the most enduring values of American modern dance.

The eight-member ensemble danced works by Erick Hawkins and Lucinda Childs that flowed across the stage in elegant, measured rhythms, carving patterns in space that made me think of the raked lines in the sand of a Zen garden. The dancing was pure, flawless and effortless, performed with an inward calm that embraced the audience.

For inspired contrast, they jumped and spun through The Experts (2002), a divinely nutty piece by Sarah Michelson for which the stage was covered in plastic bubble wrap that popped with every deliberately hard landing.

Baryshnikov generously appeared in all four dances, beginning with a solo, Largo (2001), made by Childs to the “Concerto Grossi Op. 6” of Arcangelo Corelli. Childs, an original member of the Judson Dance Theater that changed the face of modern dancing in the 1960s, first danced Largo last summer as part of White Oak’s PAST Forward program, for which Baryshnikov invited Judson’s legendary choreographers to revive an old dance, and make a new one.

In Largo, Baryshnikov proved several points: that this solo, with its whirlpool turns and brushed steps, is beyond gender; that his body in motion remains thrilling to watch, even when his gestures are muted, even when he simply walks toward the footlight; and that Childs’ aesthetic is not timebound, but classic.

The closing work, Childs’ Chacony (2002), to movements from string quartets by Benjamin Britten, was a reprise of Largo writ large. The ensemble of four men and four women in black pants and jewel- colored velvet vests did sweeping turns that often began with a single dancer and then flowed into unison work by three or four. They sometimes smiled at each other as they passed, but rarely touched, so that when a dancer finally did take another’s hand, my happiness was magnified. I thought of the line from the Leonard Cohen song: “She’s touched your perfect body with her mind.”

Hawkins’ 1961 work Early Floating, restaged for White Oak by former Hawkins dancer Katherine Duke to pleasantly odd percussive music by Lucia Dlugoszewski, was Olympian in the purest sense. The dancers, in black tank suits marked with slices of green, red or yellow, seemed to swim and dive through the space. Floating is perfectly suited to the small Pillow stage. We see these incomparably beautiful bodies at close range, yet with enough distance to appreciate their fluid, eddying trails as they travel on the current of the music.

White Oak is a pickup company of ever-changing members that was founded in 1990 by Baryshnikov and Mark Morris. They are good pickers. The group has acquired a repertory of more than 25 existing works by the great moderns and more than 40 new works commissioned from Morris, Childs and emerging choreographers.

At the Pillow, the dancers included Emily Coates, a happy runaway from New York City Ballet, whose theatrical flair lit up the formal madness of The Experts and Rosalynde LeBlanc, late of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, whose cool sensuality and eloquent technique were hypnotic in Floating and Chacony. Among the men, Roger C. Jeffrey, an alum of several modern dance companies, and Miguel Anaya, from Jones/Zane, displayed controlled athleticism and a fine understanding of White Oak’s shared way of moving.

When he landed in the United States in 1974, Baryshnikov made everyone a ballet fan. Now, he’s showing us that modern dance is worlds beyond flash and clash. With White Oak, he rises to new, calm plateaus.

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