Last night at Barnes & Noble, Lincoln Square, Mikhail Baryshnikov talked briefly with New Yorker dance critic Joan Acocella about his new book of photos of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Merce My Way. (I love the title, by the way).
The talk was brief (about half an hour) but pretty good. But, honestly, I had a very hard time getting over my anger at Barnes & Noble. I arrived early in order to get a good seat up front, knowing (hoping at least) it would be crowded. But on my way in, I was stopped by a B&N employee. She said they were giving “preference” to people who purchased his book, which cost $36. She pointed me to the cash register, set up, conveniently, right next to the entrance.
I was so mad. There was such a crowd already, it was pretty clear “preference” meant that unless you were buying a book, you weren’t getting in. And in this economy, $40 is a lot to spend when you’re not expecting it. Honestly, I found it a really sleazy, unfair corporate practice to take advantage of his fame like that to sell books. A lot of people must have come from a ways away to see him, and you’re not really going to walk away if you’ve traveled. People were standing around looking like they didn’t know what to do, hesitantly withdrawing their wallets and picking up a book. “We’re a couple, can we get in on one book?” I heard someone ask the people at the door.
I mean, this was advertised as a regular talk / author reading event, which are always free. Nothing in the adverts (at least the ones I saw) said anything about having to purchase a book. As Ron Hogan (of the pub / book blogs Galley Cat and Beatrice) tweeted me (and damn, was I a mad tweeter last night), “seriously. if bookstores want to pull that crap, let them charge $40 IN ADVANCE and include the book w/admission.”
Just as I was getting mad about missing Bill T. Jones (who was giving a talk downtown) for this b.s., I saw my friend Monica Wellington (who I met through Philip). They’d agreed to let her buy the Joan Acocella book instead, which was less expensive. She told them at the door we were together, so they let me in. Thank you thank you, Monica!!
Anyway, the talk was pretty good, albeit short (about half an hour). I’d never heard him speak before, other than giving a brief sound byte on a pre-recorded interview. He is, as expected, charming and smart, though he talks very slowly, thinks hard about his words as if he’s always too far ahead of himself, struggles with English, and digresses frequently. None of which were a big deal, and his digressions often led to entertaining little tidbits.
Acocella opened by asking why he chose Merce as a photography subject. He said, somewhat jokingly, that he never really liked ballet photography, was enthralled by this thing called American modern dance, and wanted to discover and capture its essence. Merce was fascinating. He was amazed by the 90-year-old wheelchair-bound choreographer who continued to make dances, instruct dancers, and run meetings; said he found Merce an “extraordinary example of how to live, work, create, how to be human.”
Then Acocella asked him what it was like to dance with Merce; he said great, then went off on the first of his digressions: his days at New York City Ballet. “You didn’t much like my performances then,” he said to her, laughing. Oh, I was young and stupid she said in return with a bit of embarrassment. But he quickly replied, no, no, you were right. Then he said a true artist has to learn to take criticism, even if it’s unfair, must learn to see at least some of it as constructive, to separate the unfair and what you feel is wrong from the constructive and ask yourself what can you learn from this. I thought that was brilliant.
He talked about BAC (the three-year-old Baryshnikov Arts Center in Hell’s Kitchen), said one of its main purposes — its most important — was to provide community arts education, particularly to young people — since arts education expands the mind, makes people better and more interesting. This got a big round of applause. He said arts must be “cherished” and “encouraged disproportionately” to young people. (His accent is thick, and I’m not always positive I understood correctly, but I think he used the word “disproportionately.”) He said it was challenging to make art for little or no money and hoped for greater public support for the arts but also worried about the current government’s corporate taxation policies and how that will affect corporate gifts to arts organizations. “We often depend on the kindness of strangers,” he said with a giggle, trying to do a little southern Tennessee Williams accent. He says he wants to “stir up” the arts scene with BAC, producing avant garde material, and expressed sadness that money seems to be the main legitimator of value in our culture, which I also thought was brilliant.
In closing, he talked about an upcoming project — a collaboration with Swedish choreographer Mats Ek and his wife, Ana Laguna, which will be touring five or six countries, including the U.S. — though they don’t yet know if they’ll come to NY; only the West Coast and Chicago. Acocella asked him what it was like dancing now (at 61) compared to when he was younger. He said performing is actually easier when you’re older because you’re less vain than when you were young. It’s more about acting, playing a character now than perfection of movement, more focused on the performance than the results.
And then he signed books.
So, it was very crowded, which made me happy. I mean, if he can’t pack a place, who in the dance world can? There were many standing outside the glass, looking in — presumably those who didn’t buy books. And the photographer turn-out was insane. Look at this phalanx at the far wall:
The B&N people told us there would be a “photo op” for the press at the beginning, which we could participate in by whipping out our cameras right then, but then we’d have to put them away — there was to be no picture-taking or cell phone usage during the talk. So, no tweeting, no mo-blogging, no texting, no non-flash pics? Barnes & Noble was really quite nuts last night.
Anyway, if anyone went to Bill T. Jones at Skirball, please let me know how it went!