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Living With Misha 

White Oak Dance Project may be Baryshnikov's brainchild, but dancer Raquel Aedo is not intimidated

Wednesday, Oct 25 2000
Raquel Aedo fears few things in the dance world. Her sinewy frame doesn't tremble, for instance, at her boss' every criticism. "I still look at him when I'm watching him perform and see he's accomplished so much, but intimidation is not a feeling I get," she says. It's a gutsy declaration considering that her boss is Mikhail Baryshnikov.

But Aedo has worked under Baryshnikov for 6 1/2 years now, having joined his White Oak Dance Project when she was just 22 -- five years younger than the other members in a company that once skewed more toward maturity. She's also emerged in recent seasons as a lush and intelligent performer who holds her own against (and in some respects outshines) the exalted Misha. Assuredness is not an issue. But the idea of tackling works from the Judson Church era -- rebellious pieces from the 1960s, many first performed in Greenwich Village's Judson Church -- still gave her pause.

"At first I had some trepidation about it because I didn't know physically and mentally that it was something I would want to be touring for a long time," the Miami native says, speaking from her hotel room in Phoenix. "When Misha brought up the idea we had just gotten done working with a couple choreographers I loved. It's a big change going from that kind of work to the Judson crew."

She's far from alone in her hesitation. Judson Church works can turn off even die-hard dance lovers. Performers often don't dance in these pieces: Sometimes they lug mattresses, play games, stand still, or simply walk. The point for most Judson Church choreographers -- obsessively cerebral figures like Yvonne Rainer, Deborah Hay, and Steve Paxton -- was roughly that dance can be anything, and authority and inauthenticity suck.

The works that make up White Oak's current project, "PAST/Forward," are conceptual and often not terribly kinetic, but they paved the way for contemporary choreographers as diverse as Mark Morris and Pina Bausch, and taken the right way, they can be fascinating. For its two Cal Performances programs, White Oak will choose among 16 revivals and four new works by everyone from Simone Forti to Lucinda Childs. The Judson program is a natural for Baryshnikov, who time and again has shamelessly used his star power to lure the unsuspecting masses to White Oak performances only to ambush them with an education in modern dance. He's pulled out every stop this time to pique receptivity: Charles Atlas' skillfully edited videos of archival footage introduce each piece.

Aedo wasn't worried about audience reaction, though; she was worried about herself and whether she would be challenged. Luckily, the project brought her unexpectedly useful lessons. "It's more information for my brain in the sense of dance in general," she says. "For instance, Deborah Hay works in a cellular way. She has her own world -- [one that centers on] your presence with the audience and not knowing what your next move is going to be. She calls it "loyalty and disinterestedness,' which is [when] you grab on to something and you are true to it and then you move on. So it's another resource for me, for works in the future."

Judson Church or no, White Oak can be a taxing company to dance for, and Aedo almost didn't last. Besides the pressures of sharing center stage with a superstar, it can be difficult working for such an unorthodox company -- one with no primary choreographer and no standing repertory. "Before I joined this group I was stylistically flexible, so it made a lot of sense to join," Aedo says. "I was able to live up to my skill. And then there came a time a couple of years [later] when I was getting a little -- not impatient, but ... restless, because I was starting to want to develop with a choreographer and be picky and spend more time and see what it's like. It's almost schizo sometimes, going onstage and switching off one style for the next piece and turning on another. ... But then we started working with some choreographers I really wanted to work with -- Lucy Guerin, Trisha Brown -- and I realized there was no better place for me."

Other difficulties -- the insinuation, for instance, that the once all-female group reflects Baryshnikov's reputed womanizing tendencies -- don't touch her. "There's two other men in the company now so people will probably stop saying that," she says. "But I think it's hilarious. I think it's great that people need to have this image of Misha. We would joke around about it sometimes -- about being his harem."

It's hard to say how much longer Aedo will be anchoring White Oak's impressive roster of dancers. She'd like to take a break with her husband, whom she married before joining the company. "I'd like to have a child and leave my options open for work," she says. "I'd like to do some organic farming. We just bought some property in upstate New York."

But already she feels fortunate to have been part of this unorthodox dance history lesson. "It's like with music and movies ... the past comes back up, and there's nothing like actually being able to see performers do it," she says. "But you have to be open to it and come with that mind because there's a lot in it that takes thinking."

About The Author

Rachel Howard


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