'Dance is in a very good place right now," Mikhail Baryshnikov tells me by phone from his hotel room in Kohala on the island of Hawaii.
Speaking with that unmistakable accent, even 35 years after his defection from his native Russia, "Misha" shares some thoughts in the midst of his latest tour.
"Contemporary dance is becoming more popular," he says. "There is a lot of TV programs about dance, and whether they are good or bad, they are bringing new audience into the theater. This is good for us!"
In an exclusive interview, one of the great artists of our time, Mikhail Baryshnikov reflects on the legendary career that will have him dancing new works in Castle Theater Sept. 17
Baryshnikov says he has been ‘very much encouraged and pleased’ by positive response across the U.S. and Europe to the program he will dance on Maui with the award-winning Ana Laguna, featuring new works by leading contemporary choreographers.
GERRY MOONEY photo
Savoring a past Maui Academy of Performing Arts Garden Party are Harriet Huff (from left), Hana Steele, Judy Hughes and Marilynn Hirashima.
Perhaps the greatest male dancer of the 20th century, Baryshnikov has always welcomed dance in all forms. Now past the physically demanding jumps and lifts that once brought him such acclaim, his focus is on contemporary work by prominent choreographers.
Yet, he maintains his love for classical ballet. "Of course, there is always a place for classical," Baryshnikov says. "Hopefully it will be forever, like classical opera or symphony or classical music; there can always be an introduction to dance through pieces like 'Sleeping Beauty' or 'Swan Lake.' I don't think there is any worry about that."
Classical is, after all, where Baryshnikov rose to stardom. As a young man on the world's dance stage, a principal with the American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, he captivated audiences with the perfection of his technique. (Few dance fans can forget the magic of his Nutcracker Prince opposite Gelsey Kirkland in 1977, now an annually televised Christmas favorite.)
But Baryshnikov never allowed himself to be defined strictly as a classical ballet dancer - in fact, he left Russia to avoid such confinement. He loved to perform new works, expanding his talents by collaborating with renowned choreographers Twyla Tharp, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, among others. His White Oak Dance Project, co-founded with choreographer Mark Morris in 1990, broadened the horizons of American modern dance.
Now 61, he has not danced classical ballet for many years. Does he miss it?
"No," he replies firmly. "I'm interested in what I'm doing now; otherwise I wouldn't do it."
Baryshnikov's new show, simply titled "Three Solos and a Duet," brings him together with multi-award-winning female dancer Ana Laguna. The two legends of dance take the stage at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's Castle Theater at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 17.
The show is "more storytelling" than his last MACC appearance in 2001 with White Oak Dance Project, Baryshnikov says. "It's not a question of more dance or less dance it's more about the supplemental stories in each piece, not just a dance for dance sake."
The "stories" are the work of master Swedish choreographer Mats Ek (who also happens to be Laguna's life partner); French choreographer and NYCB principal dancer Benjamin Millepied; and Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, ABT artist in residence and former artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet. It's the kind of edgy, evolving dance that Baryshnikov loves to do. "I guess it's up to you (the audience) to figure out what it is," he says. "They are all fresh pieces with a European flavor."
Baryshnikov says he's been "very much encouraged and pleased" by the positive response he's received so far performing the program across the mainland U.S. and Europe, and is confident that Hawaii audiences will enjoy the new show (although there may not be any onstage dancing after the show this time!).
"I have good memories about the last time I was here," he says. "It was a great audience, and I'm looking forward for this week." During his time in Hawaii, he says he plans to see some hula - a dance form with which he is not too familiar - and visit friends.
It's certainly a more relaxed setting than New York City, where Baryshnikov lives and works on a variety of projects ranging from film to photography- as well as dancing for several hours a day. In 2005, he founded the state-of-the-art Baryshnikov Arts Center in Manhattan as a place where international artists could come together to learn and to perform - and maybe even be inspired to greatness.
As he moves forward in his own career, Baryshnikov continually encourages other dancers to do the same. "Be tough on yourself, and be smart - and careful, too," he says. But most of all: "Keep working!"
* Tickets are $12, $35, $55 and $65. Applicable fees are added to tickets for all MACC shows, available at the MACC box office, by calling 242-7469 or online at www.mauiarts.org.
Five celebrated Hawaiian female poets will share a program of spoken word and poetry at 6 p.m. Friday at the MACC's McCoy Studio Theater. Puanani Burgess, Ho'oipo DeCambra, Tamara Wong-Morrison, Mahealani Perez-Wendt and Jamaica Osorio will read their work and explore the theme "Remembering Roots and Envisioning Future," reflecting the deep significance of poetry in Hawaiian culture. Tickets are $20.
Ku Mai Ka Hula brings a wealth of exciting and beautiful dance to the MACC's Castle Theater at 1 p.m. Saturday, as the fourth annual international hula competition returns to Maui. The event features group and soloist winners from Japan along with Hawaii halau. The dancers will compete in adult male and female group and solo performances in kahiko (traditional hula) and auana (modern-day hula styling), as well as an over-50 kupuna division. Tickets are $25; half-price for keiki.
Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple" (Female Version) opens the Maui OnStage 2009-2010 season on Friday, Sept. 18. The light-hearted comedy follows the same storyline as Simon's original play, except that this 1985 version features women instead of men. Florence Ungar (played by Jennifer Rose) and Olive Madison (Camille Romero) are two quibbling roommates who find themselves thrown together by life's circumstances. The show is directed by Mark Collmer and also features Kathy Collins, Beth Garrow, Jesse Rogers, Kevin Wilson, Nicholas Batres and Tasha Bradon. "The Odd Couple" runs through Sunday, Sept. 27. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for students and seniors, $15 for Sunday matinees; available at If the Shoe Fits in Wailuku, online at www.mauionstage.com, or by calling 242-6969.
For the 21st year, Maui Academy of Performing Arts adorns the grounds of the Yokouchi Family Estate in Wailuku with its colorful Garden Party, which will be held from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. The event features a Chef's Festival with over a dozen Maui restaurants, and "fresh art" created by well-known Maui artists. Funds raised go to support MAPA's educational performing arts programs. Tickets are $65 in advance, $75 at the gate; available at the MAPA office at 81 N. Church St., Queen Ka'ahumanu Center Customer Service Kiosk, The Nail Shop Kihei, and Sir Wilfred's in Whalers Village. For more information, visit www.mauiacademy.org.
Cirque Polynesia has cut prices by more than 20 percent for its show and dinner packages at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa. The new $99 (plus tax) package is now available for visitors and kamaaina. "With everyone feeling a pinch in their wallets, we wanted to make it easier for local families and their guests to enjoy a great night out," says Managing Partner Doug Harris. The action-packed show features international artists performing aerial acrobatics, illusions, balancing acts, contortions and more. Beginning Monday, Cirque Polynesia will play at 7 p.m. five nights a week instead of six, with Saturdays and Sundays as the new dark nights. For reservations or more information, visit www.cirquepolynesia.com or call 667-4540.
Danelle Watson is the new director of Alexander Academy of Performing Arts in Kula, stepping into the shoes of founder/ owner Cynthia Murphy who has relocated to the Mainland after more than 13 years of teaching dance on Maui. Watson earned her bachelor's of fine arts degree and performed professionally in New York City, and has been teaching and directing dance for more than 20 years. Alexander Academy offers classes in ballet, jazz and contemporary dance for students age 3 1/2 to adult, at the Old Kula Community Center. For more information, contact Watson at 878-8970 or e-mail dance@alexander academy.vpweb.com.