Ten Suggestions: Peggy Baker, Mark Morris, and Mikhail Baryshnikov

Fans of the New York contemporary dance scene will know Mark Morris and Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project. Peggy Baker was invited to dance for its inaugural season in 1990, and she shares her experience in the following essay, an excerpt from The Choreographer’s Trust of a longer piece entitled Interpretation and Identity: a preoccupation I share with John Cage. Mark Morris Dance Group is coming to Toronto this summer for Luminato, and Peggy Baker Dance Projects fans can receive 20% off their tickets to L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il ModeratoBook before June 13. Click here to buy your’s today.

Ten Suggestions / Mark Morris (an excerpt from Interpretation and Identity)

In 1990 I was invited to join Mark Morris and Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project for its inaugural season. Among the many extraordinary gifts of that time for me was sharing a part with Baryshnikov in a charming solo called Ten Suggestions. Mark had made Ten Suggestions for himself and I had seen the first performance at the old Dance Theatre Workshop in New York. I went home from that concert and wrote a poem that captures the touching, virtuosic, campy essence of the performance:

The man in the pink silk pyjamas was spectacular; 

Casals playing in the light of Liberace’s candelabra. 

I saw Nijinsky dance in 1981.

Mark Morris circa 1980. (from markmorrisdancegroup.org)

Mark Morris circa 1980. (from markmorrisdancegroup.org)

Mark is a great big guy, soft and floppy and flamboyant. He tosses off impressive turns and balances with the greatest of ease and he is supremely musical. Misha is like a greyhound, small and perfectly proportioned. He is lean and muscular, and there is nothing he can’t do well. One of the greatest classical dancers of all time, he is handsome and sexy to boot. I am a tallish, angular modern dancer, somewhat androgynous. My proportions are odd, but somehow everything balances out. Depending on the dance, I tend toward extremes of either cool abstraction or deep emotion.

Peggy circa 1994 in Brute. Photo: Lois Greenfield

Peggy circa 1994 in Brute. Photo: Lois Greenfield

It was an unusual choice for Mark to cast both Misha and I in a solo he had made for himself. With no basis for comparison, because of the drastic contrasts among us, I realized that I had been in the habit of comparing myself to other dancers rather than thinking of myself purely in relation to the choreography.

Picture this: for the very first step of the dance you wait several bars, then suddenly appear from the up right wing, pull off as many pirouettes as you can in a couple of counts and then drop to a crouch. Any choreographer would dream of having Mikhail Baryshnikov for a moment like that. But whatever Misha did, I was going to have to treat it differently, because I’ve never gotten around more than three times in my entire career. The immediate and enduring lesson on that one was to focus on the dance and to consider and explore ways in which to meet the challenges of the choreography, rather than lamenting my inability to choose options that are only available to others.

Mikhail Baryshnikov

Mikhail Baryshnikov

I also got a better sense of the fact that sometimes it is simply the physique of a dancer that makes something work in a particular way. Mark’s lush bulk was splendid for the Duncanesque dance with a ribbon. Misha was so low and compact for the somersault / crouch phrase that it read like the kind of optical illusion a clown uses to squash his height. And my extra long arms were the perfect length for the deco sequence with the hoop. You can’t compete with that kind of thing, you can only think of it as a gift in terms of the dance.

Mark was incredibly generous in the way that he rehearsed Misha and me, taking tremendous pleasure in seeing the dance reinvented by each of us. One of my strongest memories from those rehearsals is of Mark, head thrown back, laughing his wild cackle over the delightful beauty, or crazy out-of-character look of some moment. Misha loved to talk things over with me. How did I approach this or that, what did I think of the way he had chosen to do something.  Was I aware of having lost some detail or of having changed something he thought worked well. That same openness and curiosity was sustained through the performances as we supported each other with a comment or question and continued to observe each other’s work with interest and appreciation.

Peggy Baker

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