Baryshnikov Does Beckett

January 6, 2008

It’s a special pleasure to see one of the greatest dancers of our time shed his training and challenge himself to an artistic duel: Misha vs. Beckett. After that divestment, he’s left with a modest physicality and a willingness to break down the ideals of beauty and embrace an unadorned plainness—or strangeness. Of course that’s what he’s been doing all along, gradually changing from classical ballet to modern and postmodern.

In four “”Beckett Shorts,” directed by Joanne Akalaitis at the New York Theatre Workshop, Baryshnikov is crossing borders again. He appears first as a forlorn man who is put upon by free-floating objects with minds of their own (Act Without Words I), a derelict with an alter ego (Act Without Words II), a blind beggar (Rough for Theatre I), and a man who is heavy with regret (Eh Joe).

These pretty dismal characters are a far cry from Albrecht, Ailey’s Pas de Duke, or Tharp’s Push Comes to Shove, and from Carrie’s Boyfriend in Sex and the City. They hark back to the previous play I saw him in a couple years ago: Forbidden Christmas or the Doctor and the Patient. There he revealed a touching vulnerability that I hadn’t seen before in his performing. A hint of this quality graces the first and third of these short plays, but Beckett’s characters are more destitute. Baryshnikov has a heart-breaking lightness and frailty as the violin-playing blind beggar. The way he looks reminds me of something I’ve noticed before: the similarity between dancers and beggars. We’re both scrappy, hanging on by our wits, living close to the bone.

But in Beckettian terms, Baryshnikov is no match for Bill Camp, who plays the lame beggar opposite him. Camp projects the desperation/ridiculousness of his character with the extreme changes in rhythm that one associates with Beckett.

In Act Without Word II, its’ fun to see Baryshnikov alongside David Neumann emerge from a blanket, get dressed, take pills, chew on a carrot and spew it out. Neumann, as the second man to pointlessly get up and go through the routine, has a smidgeon of mischief that can be read in his every move, so he’s a good foil for the more solemn Baryshnikov.

But still, these plays are not Waiting for Godot or Krapp’s Last Tape and these characters are only pale shadows of Gogo and Didi. (However, the two handicapped beggars in Rough for Theatre I were reminiscent of Pozzo and Lucky’s master/slave relationship in Godot.)

The last play, Eh Joe, is where Baryshnikov really comes into his own. As Joe, he sits on the edge of a bed, nearly motionless, but his face is amplified to giant-size on a video scrim both in front of and behind him. As the Woman, played by Karen Kandel, goes through a litany of accusations, his face subtley registers her verbal slings and arrows. This is the Misha we know: precise, understated, supremely aware of the effect of the slightest turn of the head or slow blink of an eye. His ability to project his silent regret is riveting, helped by Kandel’s eloquent but merciless barrage.

Baryshnikov’s ability to not flinch during this lengthy scene is a clue to why his performances have been so great. He doesn’t ingratiate, he doesn’t do upbeat unless called for. He is able to simply exist and allow his own dark side to give complexity to the dance—or the play.

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