Ib Anderson, creative director of Ballet Arizona, say Mikhail Baryshnikov is a bit of a clown, and the famed dancer proved him right Saturday night in a solo performance at Scottsdale Center for the Arts.
Baryshnikov clowned and danced, danced and clowned. And, as always, he flirted like crazy with his audience.
For once, a Valley audience arrived early, filling up the center's lobby more than a half-hour before show time. They even left their typical jeans at home, and donned tuxes and cocktail dresses (if you've lived in the Valley long enough, you know how rare such elegant displays can be). And they obviously came prepared to buy anything connected with dance at the center's gift shop.
"These are for my twin baby granddaughters," said one woman as she handed two tiny tutus to the sales clerk. "They are going to look so cute!"
But everyone cleared out of the gift shop in plenty of time to find their seats. In yet another rare treat, little whispering, cellophane paper rattling, handbag zippering or cell phone ringing could be heard throughout the auditorium.
When the curtain came up, it revealed pianist Koji Attwood, who delivered a delicate work by Serabin, but the audience's relief was almost palpable when he began John Cage's "In a Landscape" and Baryshnikov entered, lit by a soft blue spot
The piece, titled after Cage's work, was choreographed by Cesc Gelabert, and combines both the elegance of classical ballet with modern semaphoring. Baryshnikov made blending the two philosophies look easy. Although well into his 50s, his body has lost little — if any — of its suppleness and strength.
"He's like a good wine, he ages well," said Bob Goot, a former Scottsdale resident now living in California, who returned to the Valley to see Baryshnikov dance.
"I've never seen anyone who could use their body like that," said Edry Goot, his wife. "Every muscle, every finger, he has almost other-worldly control. I was totally mesmerized by the Zen-ness of his performance!"
That Zen-ness was most apparent in "Indoor Man," choreographed by Tere O'Connor. Here was where Baryshnikov's loveable wit made its first appearance of the evening.
As Attwood played David Jaggard's "Elastic Tango," Baryshnikov entered the stage wearing a cardboard box on his head. Yes, a cardboard box. It might have been adorned with prints of old and modern Dutch masters, but anyway you look at it, Baryshnikov still had a box on his head. Fortunately, the front of the box was open, so the audience could see him as he yawned, rolled his eyes and acted the part of a man profoundly bored.
Which was what the piece, "Indoor Man," was all about.
Once Baryshnikov got rid of the box — went outside — his apparent boredom fell away, and he danced and strutted with a new, wide-awake freedom.
Lovers of classical dance got their propers with Lucinda Childs' "Opus One," set to music by Alan Berg. Baryshnikov reminded all of his roots — the Kirov Ballet — as he performed arabesques, pirouettes and leaps. It was dance at its purest.
Baryshnikov the clown returned in the second half of the show with two loony pieces. "Yazoo," choreographed by Eliot Feld and set to various guitar/harmonica blues pieces, had Baryshnikov dressed in khakis and a wife-beater undershirt, wiggling his hips and pointing his toes in an uptown version of the funky chicken. As the audience began to giggle, he flirted outrageously with them, and by the time he'd gyrated his way through R.L. Burnside's "Goin' Down South," there wasn't a person there who didn't see the blues in a new light.
Things got even funnier in Eliot Feld's, "Mr. XYZ," set to Leon Redbone's "My Walking Stick" and "Lulu's Back in Town." Baryshnikov entered the stage dressed like an old man, leaning on a cane, wearing glasses and suspenders, just hobbling along. He began to dance with his cane, but discarded it when a female mannequin on wheels rolled onto the stage. At that point, the "old man" got a little livelier — as did the dancing.
But the real laughs came when the mannequin rolled off stage and a plain office chair rolled on in its place. The "exhausted" Baryshnikov flopped across the chair in different positions, then began to dance with it. By the end, he had the chair balanced on his head.
"He is just amazing," Edry Goot said. "Just amazing."
Judging from the sustained standing ovation the audience gave Baryshnikov, she wasn't alone in her assessment.