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Mikhail Baryshnikov and Merce Cunningham Talk Dance Photography

Photo: Everett Bogue

He may not be gracing the stage quite so often these days, but ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov has remained an ever-present artistic force; look around town, and you’ll see his mark on everything from cultural venues (the impressive Baryshnikov Arts Center) to new modern dance (his young Hell’s Kitchen Dance troupe) to theater (in last year’s acclaimed Beckett Shorts) to worshipful artistic homages — his mostly naked body is depicted, Apollo-like, by Robert Wilson, in the lobby of BAM. His latest project, a photo exhibition at Mark Seliger’s 401 Projects, showcases the results of two years of following around the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and capturing their movements on digital film. Misha (and, to our delight and surprise, Cunningham himself!) took a break from the opening-night festivities to talk to Vulture.

You’ve been photographing for decades, but never dancers. Why this, now?
I was experimenting. I wanted to really take certain moments that the audience during the performance may not necessarily appreciate, maybe some emotional moments, some romantic moments that I see, and sometimes I feel the audience doesn’t. I know that sometimes they feel, “He [Merce] is so formal and so detached and not emotional,” but I think it’s actually quite the opposite. That’s what I was trying to show in my work.

Why had you never focused on dance photography before?
I never liked dance photography; it’s very flat, and dance photography in the studio looks very contrived. Very few photographers really know how to … it’s just a page in the book. It was not that I hated it, but I didn’t feel it was necessary compared with the real thing. But there were a few photographers — Brodovitch, Himmel, Ilse Bing, Irving Penn — who made me feel it was possible. I wanted the audience to see, to be able to imagine, the movement before and after, not just the frozen moment.

So was it strange to now see dance from the photographer’s perspective?
I was just worried that I was a distraction for the dancers! But since I was always there two hours before the premiere, they were nervous anyway.

Your friendship with Merce is a long-standing one — do you relate to his choreographic style especially well?
When I arrived in this country almost 35 years ago, I started slowly to see … it took me a few years to get hooked! Some things for me, being a classical dancer at that time, were oddly familiar but also kind of far. But then I understood more and more the way he works and challenges his imagination and his dancers, and I became a Merce junkie. And of course I’ve had the luck and privilege to work with him and dance in his pieces and dance with him together, and I’m a big fan of his. I’m very honored to be his friend. I really admire him with all my heart.

So do you feel he really opened the window to modern dance for you?
Yes, yes. Though this is not really modern dance — it is in history books that are not written yet, because it is so far ahead of its time — much more than even George Balanchine. This is art that transfigures our present time into the future.

You’ve moved far beyond dance in recent years…
I’ve always rejected the notion that I’m just a dancer. I was always interested in photography and other forms of art. First of all it takes your mind from the kind of annoying moments in your professional life and opens different ones, and then you come back and through this I actually understand my own work in much more detail. You know, maybe it’s a bit too late in my career [laughs]. I wish I could start this again. It would have been something different.

Really? Would you do something other than ballet if you were starting over?
Absolutely. I don’t know, maybe I wouldn’t dance at all.

Photo: Everett Bogue

[At this point, who should roll into the gallery but Merce Cunningham himself! The 88-year-old choreographic legend did us the honor of having a brief chat as he surveyed the photos.]

So what do you think?
It’s great! One person is almost static, and the other one is moving. The static position of the body we know, but the moving position is different — it looks as if you got bigger. You see a kind of blur, and on top it’s the head moving! It’s like double, triple images. And in this one, there’s an arm that looks like a bird — it has feathers, and wings at the end of it!

What do you especially like about Misha’s work?
He has a great interest in what’s happening now, and this kind of work would not be possible without that which wasn’t around, let’s say, a few weeks ago. I saw him in the Beckett plays, and particularly in the first one, he was wonderful. It was quite striking.

And are you seeing your own work in a new way?
It’ such a different way of thinking about photographing; ordinarily it’s more static. It’s a great difference from dance photographs twenty years ago, which were just a picture. If you wanted to capture jumping, it was recorded in that position — and if it was a marvelous jump, everyone wondered how you got there! Here you see the movement — that’s something he sees.

Was it strange knowing throughout this project that Baryshnikov was constantly watching your work?
We would rehearse, and he came with his camera and stood quite close to the stage, and because he has a dancer’s eye, he knew where to look or move. You could see, he would hold the camera still, and then he’d move it, so he caught both things. I had no idea what these would look like, but it was fascinating to watch. He was like a sprite moving around in front of the stage. —Rebecca Milzoff

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Merce Cunningham Talk Dance Photography