Debut of Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Celebrated choreographer Mark Morris provided the repertory for the premiere performance of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project, which featured Baryshnikov and other stellar dancers.

Summary of Event

On October 24, 1990, audience members at the Wang Center for the Performing Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, eagerly awaited the premiere performance of a completely new dance ensemble, the White Oak Dance Project. Nearly thirty-six hundred dance enthusiasts were on hand to see ballet and film star Mikhail Baryshnikov perform the choreography of the world-renowned Mark Morris. Baryshnikov was accompanied onstage by Morris and a superb ensemble of stellar dancers representing a veritable who’s who of ballet and modern dance professionals. White Oak Dance Project Theater;dance Choreography;White Oak Dance Project [kw]Debut of Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project (Oct. 24, 1990) [kw]Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project, Debut of (Oct. 24, 1990) [kw]White Oak Dance Project, Debut of Baryshnikov’s (Oct. 24, 1990) [kw]Dance Project, Debut of Baryshnikov’s White Oak (Oct. 24, 1990) Dance;White Oak Dance Project White Oak Dance Project Theater;dance Choreography;White Oak Dance Project [g]North America;Oct. 24, 1990: Debut of Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project[07900] [g]United States;Oct. 24, 1990: Debut of Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project[07900] [c]Dance;Oct. 24, 1990: Debut of Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project[07900] Baryshnikov, Mikhail Morris, Mark Gilman, Howard

Billed as a dance “project” rather than as a company, the White Oak dancers, many of them leading dancers in other companies, were a unique ensemble. Chosen by Baryshnikov and Morris, the dancers included Peggy Baker, Baker, Peggy Rob Besserer, Besserer, Rob and Nancy Colahan Colahan, Nancy from the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company; Jamie Bishton Bishton, Jamie and Kathleen Moore Moore, Kathleen from American Ballet Theatre; Kate Johnson, Johnson, Kate who had recently retired from the Paul Taylor Dance Company; Denise Pons, Pons, Denise a soloist with the Boston Ballet; and William Pizzuto, Pizzuto, William who left the Boston Ballet in 1989.

Noteworthy for its emphasis on mature dancers, many of whom were in their thirties and forties, the ensemble was also unusual in that it made no distinction between ballet dancers and modern dancers; all were viewed first and foremost as dancers, with the primary emphasis on their extraordinary abilities and not on their status as representatives of ballet or modern dance. It was the first time that such disparate and accomplished individuals had combined forces to dance together not as guest soloists from other companies but as an ensemble.

In an interview with Dance Magazine writer Nancy Dalva, Dalva, Nancy project manager Barry Alterman Alterman, Barry made clear the distinction between company and project ensemble members: “A Company is self-perpetuating, with long commitments, and goes on for a long time. This might not last beyond this town or might go on to another town. The personnel may change.” Indeed, after the Boston premiere, the White Oak Dance Project’s personnel did change, as Morris left to resume work in Belgium and dancers such as David Parsons Parsons, David and Donald Mouton Mouton, Donald briefly joined the touring project.

Created for a single initial tour of seventeen cities in the United States, the White Oak Dance Project took its name from the White Oak Plantation, the estate of philanthropist Howard Gilman. The New York paper manufacturer, ardent balletomane, and supporter of Baryshnikov provided the financial backing for the touring project, offered the use of his estate for rehearsals, and had a state-of-the-art dance studio specially constructed on the property. Located on the St. Marys River near the Florida-Georgia border, the estate became home for the ensemble during July and August, 1990. There the dancers were treated like royalty during the five weeks of preparation: They rehearsed in near-idyllic conditions, and, when not rehearsing, they enjoyed boating, swimming, and other delights of Gilman’s paradise. It was, as one dancer involved dubbed it, “the greatest dance camp ever.”

When Baryshnikov founded the White Oak Dance Project, he intended it as a temporary vehicle for himself and others. After his tenure as artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, Baryshnikov had no interest in taking on the responsibilities of a permanent company, and he conceived of the White Oak Project as an opportunity to dance in pieces he enjoyed alongside dancers who were his peers in achievement, age, and experience. Baryshnikov chose Morris because of his admiration for Morris’s choreographic skills, and he chose the all-Morris repertory for the initial tour because he felt that the dancers would profit by working with the phrasing, style, and demands of a single choreographer at first. A self-proclaimed fan of Morris, Baryshnikov said that he never considered any other choreographer for the White Oak Project.

Baryshnikov’s respect for Morris’s choreography dated back to 1987, when, as director of American Ballet Theatre, he commissioned Morris to create Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes (ballet) for the company. After his resignation from American Ballet Theatre American Ballet Theatre in 1989, Baryshnikov surprised the dance world by traveling to Belgium, where he appeared as a guest with Morris’s company in Wonderland Wonderland (ballet) in December of 1989; he repeated the performance during the company’s New York season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Baryshnikov found the camaraderie he experienced while working with Morris’s company a welcome antidote to the tumultuous politics of American Ballet Theatre. “It was such a nice atmosphere,” Baryshnikov later recalled. “We thought, ’Why couldn’t we find a project to stretch this lovely feeling?’”

Baryshnikov’s formation of the White Oak Project may also have had roots in sheer physical reality. At forty-two, Baryshnikov was no longer at the peak of his form; injuries, age, and the demands of a multifaceted career made the continuation of his famous classical roles uncertain. Although both Morris and Baryshnikov denied that Baryshnikov’s switch to modern-dance-based choreography was a response to his diminished technical abilities, performing in other than classical roles allowed Baryshnikov greater freedom and evoked fewer unfavorable comparisons to his younger self.

The White Oak Project debut was a benefit preview fund-raiser for the Boston-based Dance Umbrella, an organization that had long supported Morris. The concert included Morris’s signature solo Ten Suggestions, performed that evening by Baryshnikov; Pas de poisson, a trio for Baryshnikov, Kate Johnson, and Morris; and two group works, Going Away Party and Motorcade.

Although well received by the huge audience drawn by Baryshnikov’s name and Morris’s choreography, the concert elicited mixed responses from dance critics. In reviewing Ten Suggestions, critics were quick to point out the differences between Baryshnikov’s fastidious execution of the movements and the vigorous, earthy abandon of Morris, often preferring Morris. Pas de poisson drew praise for the sparkling performances of Baryshnikov, Johnson, and Morris but garnered mixed reviews for its choreography. Going Away Party, a boisterous, tongue-in-cheek look at love and Americana, was set to the music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. A definite hit, the piece nevertheless prompted performance comparisons between Morris and Baryshnikov as well as between the White Oak dancers and Morris’s own troupe. Choreographed specifically for White Oak dancers, Motorcade was emblematic of the strengths of the project: highly technical and virtuosic dancing and alternately humorous, stately, and irreverent choreography.

The Boston debut of “The Mark and Misha Show,” as Time magazine and others nicknamed the White Oak Dance Project, announced the arrival and immediate departure of a unique enterprise, as it embarked on a seventeen-city tour across the United States. The company that was not a company headed for Minneapolis.

Significance

When asked about his rationale for the ensemble, Baryshnikov replied, “In the time I have left, I just want to go onstage and dance for the fun of it. It’s really great to go onstage in pieces that people never expected me to be in.” The White Oak Dance Project offered Baryshnikov marvelous new performing opportunities, and the experience seemed to be as fulfilling for him as it was financially successful. Because of Baryshnikov’s celebrity, the White Oak Project played to full houses at every stop, and by the end of the first tour, plans were under way for subsequent tours. Dance;White Oak Dance Project

The White Oak Project further glamorized the reputation of Baryshnikov and extended the recognition of Morris as a major choreographer. The tour’s itinerary had snubbed the traditional dance centers of the United States, including New York City, and therefore the impact of the project was oddly minimal in New York. By the spring of 1992, the ensemble had finished four American and European tours without a single performance in New York City. Writing for The New Yorker, Alastair Macaulay commented on a London performance of the White Oak Project: “How strange—to watch such dancers . . . all of whom the rest of the world associates with New York, and to know they are appearing in a program that there are as yet no plans to show here.”

After the White Oak Project’s first three tours, the personnel and repertory of the ensemble changed considerably. Although subsequent tours continued to feature Morris’s choreography, the repertory was augmented with works by Paul Taylor, Taylor, Paul Martha Graham, Graham, Martha Lar Lubovitch, Lubovitch, Lar and other contemporary choreographers. Works commissioned specifically for the ensemble included Taylor’s Oz, Lubovitch’s Waiting for the Sunrise, and David Gordon’s Punch and Judy. Of the original dancers, only four remained with the ensemble: Baryshnikov, Johnson, Besserer, and Colahan.

How much the success of the project affected Morris is difficult to assess. He was already considered by many the foremost choreographer of his generation, and his reputation was neither significantly enhanced nor diminished by the new works he produced for Baryshnikov’s ensemble. Much of the repertory either originated with Morris’s own company or was performed by it subsequently, and except for the initial rehearsal process, his contact with the White Oak Project was minimal. In the spring of 1991, Morris’s three-year contract as artistic director of the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels expired, and Morris and his company returned to the United States. His role with the White Oak Project remained that of guest choreographer, and his primary commitment remained to his company, the Mark Morris Group.

As an entity, the White Oak Project has been such a loosely connected enterprise that its full impact on the dance world is difficult to determine. Certainly, the initial vision of an ensemble of compatible dancers performing choreography they enjoyed without the burden of long-term commitments proved successful. The very ephemerality of the White Oak Project may prove to be an inherently fatal flaw, however: The project’s future appears to hinge on the interest and continued participation of Baryshnikov. Without his cachet, it is unlikely that the ensemble could continue to draw audiences or remain financially solvent. Another factor is that the White Oak Project has had no exclusive repertory. It seems unlikely that audiences will sustain a purely repertory company without Baryshnikov if the works are also currently being performed by the choreographers’ own companies.

For many reasons, the formation of the White Oak Project was a welcome addition to the dance world. The brilliant and eclectic choreography of Morris offered Baryshnikov and his colleagues the opportunity to shine collectively while at the same time celebrating their individual talents. The White Oak Project also reminded the dance world that excellent dancers should not be classified by genre and style or forced into retirement in their twenties. The rise of the White Oak Project was a luminous occurrence. Dance;White Oak Dance Project White Oak Dance Project Theater;dance Choreography;White Oak Dance Project

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alovert, Nina. Baryshnikov in Russia. Translated by Irene Huntoon. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984. Written by a Soviet friend of Baryshnikov who defected to the West in 1977. Lavishly illustrated with photographs that had to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">

    Baryshnikov in Black and White. New York: Bloomsbury, 2002. Picture book features more than 175 photographs depicting Baryshnikov’s work, in both rehearsal and performance, from 1974 to 2000. Includes informative introduction by dance critic Joan Acocella.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">France, Charles Engell. Baryshnikov at Work. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1977. Beautiful volume features photographs by Martha Swope. Baryshnikov discusses his most famous roles in the Soviet Union, at the New York City Ballet, with American Ballet Theatre, and on Broadway.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fraser, John. Private View: Inside Baryshnikov’s American Ballet Theatre. New York: Bantam Books, 1988. Picture book gives a nice feel for the dancers in the company and for Baryshnikov as a person. Features photographs by Eve Arnold.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgenroth, Joyce. Speaking of Dance: Twelve Contemporary Choreographers on Their Craft. New York: Routledge, 2004. Presents discussion of the differences among the works of the choreographers featured. Individual chapters present personal interviews with the choreographers; chapter 11 is devoted to Mark Morris.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morris, Mark. “The Hidden Soul of Harmony.” In Dance as a Theatre Art: Source Readings in Dance History from 1581 to the Present, edited by Selma Jeanne Cohen. 2d ed. Hightstown, N.J.: Princeton Book Company, 1992. Brief essay discusses Morris’s choreography, his musicality, and the images used in his masterpiece L’Allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smakov, Gennady. Baryshnikov: From Russia to the West. London: Orbis, 1981. Focuses on the early stages of Baryshnikov’s career, from his defection from the Soviet Union in 1974 through his acceptance of the directorship of American Ballet Theatre in 1980.

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