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Baryshnikov to Dance in New Mark Morris Work: NYC debut in April

October 6, 2012

Mikhail Baryshnikov

Mark Morris’s return to On the Boards in Seattle–”he premiered one of his earliest works as part of On’s the Boards inaugural season,” informs the OtB website–sold out in advance of its three-night run, which means that 900 dance fans already had tickets when they learned they’d be seeing Mikhail Baryshnikov dance in a world premiere that night, too. (In 1990, Morris and Baryshnikov founded the White Oak Dance Project, creating a sort of Traveling Wilburys of dance.)

He has not given Baryshnikov, at 64, anything superhuman to do in “A Wooden Tree” — part of MMDG’s “Back on the Boards” program running through Saturday — is set to the offbeat ditties of Scottish eccentric Ivor Cutler, and it’s as funny and quirky as the music that inspired it. Morris, who normally insists on live music in dance, uses the late Cutler’s recordings because, well, how could anyone possibly improve on them?

The Mark Morris Dance Group with Mikhail Baryshnikov, performing “The Wooden Tree” at On the Boards, Seattle. Photo: ©Tim Summers

Most of the songs clock in at a minute or two, so each dance is necessarily brief. That doesn’t stop them from being action-packed and loopy. “I Got No Common Sense” triggers a crazy-jig procession. “A Wooden Tree” depicts a family’s growing excitement over a wooden tree “there at the back,” with Dad, Mum, sister and brother joining each other, one by one, in arboreal enthusiasm.

“Little Black Buzzer” concerns a near-frozen telegraph operator (Baryshnikov) sending signals from the top of the world while a circle of maidens stagger-steps around him in a dot-dash-dot stutter. (The song’s chorus is literally in Morse code.)

Each wrinkle in Cutler’s tunes finds a counterpart in the movement, which is basically folk-dance subjected to whimsical mutations. Elizabeth Kurtzman’s mix-and-match costumes (everything from a tam-o’-shanter to a bulky sweater vest) add to the zany festivities.

Mark Morris Dance Group in “The Wooden Tree.” Mikhail Baryshnikov is second from left. Photo: Tim Summers

It’s not just celebrity-gawking that keeps drawing your eye back to Baryshnikov. At 64, he’s still an elegant glider of a dancer, with a gift, too, for poker-faced pantomime. His poor lonely telegraph operator (“My bum is cold and my face is white”) has a sad-sack Buster Keaton touch … especially when his battery goes dead.

“Back at the Boards” also included the Seattle premiere of “The Muir.” Performed to Beethoven settings of nine Scottish folk songs, the suite strays from feather-light prancings and pratfalls toward pulses of melancholy.

Baryshnikov will perform with the Mark Morris Dance Center when the piece makes its New York City debut in April. Mr. Baryshnikov, who is 64, last performed in New York as part of the Lincoln Center Festival in August.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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