MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV, one of the greatest dancers in history, became a dance photographer. His images reveal a totally unorthodox style; as the title of his new exhibition at 401 Projects suggests, “Merce My Way,” its subject matter is the equally unorthodox work of another dance artist, Merce Cunningham.
Mr Baryshnikov has spent much of his dancing career on the other end of the camera, as he reminded the gallery before the recent opening. “I was taken to Lord Snowdon’s studio and of course I was very impressed,” he said of his first season in the West in 1970 as a dancer with the Kirov Ballet. in London. “But also everything was so perfect. A little anal. Very different from me, anyway. I am so messy.
“In disorder” was never an adjective for Mr. Baryshnikov’s dance. But it is certainly true that his photographs have little in common with those of Lord Snowdon.
Mr Baryshnikov said he had used a conventional 35-millimeter camera for two decades, mainly taking black-and-white portrait and landscape photos. The dance caught his photographic attention just two years ago, while he was watching social dancing in the Dominican Republic. (He gave a short two-second summary, with quick shimmies and waves going up and down his body.)
He had been prepared by his study of books of old dance photographs. He distinguished Ilse Bing’s photographs of Balanchine’s choreography for Les Ballets 1933, Alexey Brodovitch’s “Ballet” (1945) and Paul Himmel’s “Ballet in Action” (1954). He also referred more than once to the images of Alexandra Beller’s Irving Penn in “Dancer”.
These precedents encouraged him to capture movement as well as stillness in a photograph, to show blur, transition, change as well as arrival, definition. When Margot Fonteyn coached the dancers, urging them to make the most of the radiant fixed positions that occur in many dance phrases, she used to shout “Photography! Mr Baryshnikov pushes in the opposite direction: have the camera record what is happening between these positions. His Dominican photographs, taken in 2006, gave rise to an exhibition entitled “Dominican Moves”.
At the same time, he began to take his camera for the dress rehearsals of Mr. Cunningham’s work. This interest dates back to the late 1970s, shortly after Mr Baryshnikov moved to the West. In the 1980s, as artistic director of the American Ballet Theater, he added Mr. Cunningham’s “Duets” to the company’s repertoire; in the 1990s, as director of the White Oak Dance Project, he added Mr. Cunningham’s “Septet” to his repertoire, sometimes dancing the central role himself.
At a Brooklyn Academy of Music benefit party in 1997 for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Mr. Baryshnikov danced a solo that Mr. Cunningham had created for himself, in “Walkaround Time” (1968); During the prestigious 1999 New York State Theater season celebrating Mr. Cunningham’s 80th birthday, the two shared the stage in a duet created by Mr. Cunningham and never seen again. Even Cunningham’s seasoned performers, who typically criticize approximations made by non-specialists trying to tackle the rigors of the Cunningham style, were deeply impressed with how Mr. Baryshnikov exemplified his principles.
Mr. Baryshnikov knows which Cunningham song is which but can rarely remember the titles. “It’s the one with the music of Nancarrow,” he said of “Crises” (1960). “You know, the one with the Comme des Garçons costumes” (“Scenario”, 1997). “This is the one with the drawings of Mark Lancaster” (“CRWDSPCR”, pronounced Crowdspacer, 1993). “The one with the drawings of Robert Rauschenberg” (“XOVER”, pronounced Crossover, 2007). He laughed sadly, adding, “I just admitted that to Merce at a dinner party recently.”
When I visited the gallery, Mr. Baryshnikov and his colleagues were still deciding where and how the paintings should be hung. One end wall, according to the afternoon plan, was to have color photographs showing almost all of the costumes and sets in black and white. These show Mr. Baryshnikov’s often pictorial control over form. But in my eyes photographs are even better when they reflect the rich colors in which Mr. Cunningham’s works are frequently conceived.
Mr. Baryshnikov and a colleague lifted a large horizontal photograph from his face down position. It turned out to be the most sultry of all: a hazy purple and blue sight that made three male-female couples look like the equivalent of Monet’s vertical water lily dance.
Certainly, Mr. Baryshnikov thinks of painters in his work. Laughing as he showed me the facial distortion he had captured in a photograph, he said, “This is my Francis Bacon moment.” And another, in which two angles of a dancer are shown together, “This is my Picasso.”
Several photographs show Mr. Cunningham’s ‘Crises’ danced by the actors who have made this work brilliant again since 2006. In one, Rashaun Mitchell, in the role that Mr. Cunningham created for himself, is shown motionless in fiery red tights, legs apart, on a black background. Around his pelvis is a red blur. At first we think it’s a veil or even a skirt, but it’s his partner. An image of three dancers in “Scenario” shows two of them in focus while a third appears to pass between them like a mint green haze. Elsewhere, the limbs become arcs, or the dancers become channels.
My immediate reaction to these photographs was to admire them as art; as design, shape, color, they are remarkable. My first reaction to them as a dancer, however, was to think that the blur was less appropriate for Mr. Cunningham’s work than it would be for many other choreographers. Yet the more I looked, the more I saw. And most of these images have come to deepen my love for a dance repertoire that already captivates me.
During my 40 minutes at the gallery, my favorite image became one of “CRWDSPCR”. At her center, Andrea Weber holds a characteristic Cunningham balance on one leg: her torso leans forward, her eyes are focused downward, and her other leg is lifted behind her as the highest point of her dance form. Arranged around her, four dancers are in different kinds of soft blurs, each having a distinct shape. The eye feasts on them, the orange and white blocks of Mr. Lancaster’s suits, all against a background of the richest sky blue.
The photo beautifully shows the depth and breadth of Mr. Cunningham’s use of the stage. It also shows, in a fascinating way, the way in which each of these dancers is involved in an independent movement. “Movement in stillness and stillness in movement”, a long motto of Cunningham, is ideally illustrated by this photograph and other photographs by Baryshnikov here.
In this world, all dancers are soloists. In his photographs Mr. Baryshnikov ?? himself among the most independent and experimental figures to have crossed the world of dance ?? catches that as if by nature.