Mikhail Baryshnikov: Dancing Away
REVIEW: Mikhail Baryshnikov: photography is the most recent art form on the ballet star's list of achievements. We went to see his first UK show.
Baryshnikov is an artist in the broadest sense, skipping between forms with the grace that kickstarted his career. But he was a dancer first, and dance is the last word on his vision. Trained at the Kirov Ballet, he moved to America in 1974 to work with the likes of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins at New York City Ballet, before taking on the Artistic Directorship of American Ballet Theater, where he stayed for 10 years.
It’s a dancer’s eye behind the camera, as well as in front. In his series of untitled dance photographs currently showing at Contini Art, the precision of stage and performance has gone. Instead you are left with snatches of movement as though you yourself were spinning in the midst.
Mikhail Baryshnikov / ContiniArtUK
The BalletBoyz did a shoot with photographer Hugo Glendinning earlier this year, and the contrast couldn’t be more acute. Glendinning’s images capture the almost inhuman athleticism of the Boyz in extreme definition and pure tones. As in so much dance photography, the image is itself a performance.
But most of Baryshnikov’s subjects are grounded, with limbs bent and flat-footed. The long exposure he favours means all the images are blurred to varying degrees. They’re not snapshots of exclusive moments, but inclusive, whole seconds of action swimming over each other and leaving marks on the air behind them.
The blur is painterly, and a comparison with Degas feels genuinely inevitable. Untitled #5 looks like someone has spilled water on a Picasso and the paint has run. The arm flung over the figure’s head is careless - an impression you’d never get on the stage.
On the upper floor of the gallery, we find the stage as you’d expect Baryshnikov himself to inhabit it: contemporary dance on the black dance-skin floor. But if there’s artistry above, there’s joy below, and the lower floor flashes with the sequins and streetlights of street dance and salsa nights. There are the garish neons of the club, the clack of seedy heels, sweaty hip hop and the rather lumpy embrace of an elderly tango. Baryshnikov isn’t recording his own form, but humming gleefully along with whoever’s moving.
Mikhail Baryshnikov / ContiniArtUK
Painterly shapes don’t mean whimsy or sentiment. The limbs that usually catch an audience’s attention - feet, legs and curving arms - are caught up in the blur leaving torsos, strong jaws, heavy thighs and thick glutes in prominence. The figures reflect solidity and power, and stray detail of toes and eyelashes only emphasises the slow commotion that recognises no need to pause for the audience.
Because these images are not for an audience. Baryshnikov is a dancer in every organ and muscle. These aren’t the impressions you soak in from the stalls, but the glimpse caught of fellow bodies as you turn for your next jump. Limbs and faces aren’t loaded with stories or held in beautiful postures - they’re markers in a pattern where each movement is a signal and cue for the next.
Above all, Baryshnikov insists that no glass-cut image capture can be real in dance. In reality, the figures’ stillness is an illusion you’re scraping together. In reality, they’re already dancing away.
Mikhail Baryshnikov: Dancing Away is showing at Contini Art until the 31st January 2015. Read our preview here.