In the mid-90s I set a dance to text by David Cale on Baryshnikov’s White Oak Project. It toured, was successful and Misha wanted a new piece. There are inevitably ass-lickers around people like Baryshnikov, but despite his fame and position, he was unaffected, generous and easy to talk to. In addition to his gifts as a dancer Misha was shrewd, insightful and had very good people skills.
To discuss the possibility of a new work, he invited David and me to his mansion on the Palisades overlooking Manhattan. After a wonderful dinner, we moved to his study, a two-story fieldstone structure 20 yards from the main house. The walls were covered with memorabilia—photos, drawings and paintings—each with a personal inscription: “Misha, thank you, I have been transformed by your work.” “Misha, your dancing has changed my life.” These didn’t ring false. I’d stood in line for three days to get into his first performance in the United States in 1974. He was astonishing. His technical virtuosity and sheer artistry so far surpassed what most people had seen that the entire audience gasped and shouted in amazement. There were 27 curtain calls.
Outside, the Hudson River slurred below in the early dark and snow settled in pillowy drifts. He poured us each a brandy. We sat by the fire chatting about this and that . . . his trip to Bankok with Roman Polanski, his nextdoor neighbor Mike Nichols. He showed us the photographs he had taken. Like everything he did, they were superb. Then leaning forward he said in his charming Russian accent, “Well Charlie, what about this new piece?” I don’t smoke cigars, but swept along by the occasion had accepted an extra- large Cohiba. I gagged out a plume of blue smoke and looked at him, trying to speak but my mouth would not open.
Surviving as a choreographer in New York required a never-ending stream of words, a blizzard of arguments, proposals and justifications, all necessary to keep projects moving from inception to completion. All of these words were a lie—a strange parallel fiction. In fact, I never really had any idea of what I was doing in the studio, not a bloody clue. My work was irrational. It just sort of happened in its own way. At the beginning of my career I’d made very elaborate structural underpinning for each piece but now mostly dances made themselves, and the best ones were mistakes. Plans went off the rails, things got out of control and then my collaborators and I would dig in and somehow manage to pull something together. To get by in the system where applications and descriptions were essential, I had imitated those around me and had learned to spew bullshit with the best of them.
Now sitting with Baryshnikov in his snug study, I had forgotten the English language. He sat smoking his cigar, smiling expectantly at me, but I had nothing to say. The silence grew longer and longer. With each moment, I could sense this exciting new project drifting away. The enchanting dinner, the cheery scene by the fire, our intimate moment, all of it was disappearing.
I wish that I’d had the courage to say, “Misha, I have no fucking idea what the new piece will be about. I never have any idea what I’m doing. I go into the studio and something happens.” But I had worked years for this access to Baryshnikov and felt I needed to sell him something, anything. I was eventually able to speak but can’t remember any of it. It was clearly not very convincing. The project didn’t happen and I was crestfallen. I had screwed up in every way—I hadn’t been clever – I hadn’t been irresistible – I hadn’t been anything.
Failure is a necessary part of a career in the arts and search as I did for reasons, it was impossible to know why the project went cold. My lack of a convincing pitch may or may not have had anything to do with it. You just don’t really know. So I crawled back under my rock and licked my wounds as I have so many times. Inevitably another project came up and I moved on.