Baryshnikov haven’t only shown to the world the magic of human physicality, put the American ballet onto the qualitatively higher level, raised up the interest for the ballet art among wider audience and have given a new breath to the modern dance. Moreover, he became the most recognizable dancer in the world, disproved the saying “Grow where you planted” and on his own example established – sometimes the American Dream is coming true.
Yet, you just can’t help falling in love with Baryshnikov – from the first glance no chance to resist. The way he jumps hanging in the air, the way he moves through the stage, rehearses, speaks, watches, the way he smokes the cigarette. This is the over-graded male and human charm that punches TV and Pad screens through the years and through the distance.
Mikhail Baryshnikov is unconditional and totally flawless. He is turning 70 today. There is no way to keep silence the day like this. But there is so hard to gather the materials with no chance to have an interview. When you want to say something new and unique but realize that somehow it has been already spoken before. It is also harder to write about the contemporaries – you simply risk being tactless and unobvious. But big chances are never small stakes. That’s why I really hope that everyone who reads the story will find something interesting, unknown before in it. And also hope for no stricter judgment from the ones who are mentioned.
Before announced as a defector
How many of them – the outstanding minds had left Russia during 70 years of Soviet period? The emigrants were floating to Constantinople… They passed the boarders, they asked for the political asylum. The ones left Russia voluntary, the others were pushed to go away, because they didn’t match the system. Their escapes gave birth to the variety of legends – disguise games, over the barrier jumps. They all had a reason to leave and no chance to stay. What was the reason for the young Mikhail Baryshnikov, while he was a favourite of the Soviet audience, the soloist with the Kirovsky Ballet, the winner of the I International Ballet Competition in 1969? That was him who gained 13 points of 12 possible from great Maya Plisetskaya who was a Jury Member.
The necessary things for the Soviet man to be happy – private apartment in the Centre of Leningrad, beautiful ballerina-bride, the dog, the piano, days-off in Komarovo, even the «Volga» car (millennial generation will hardly get it, but those times Volga was cool).
Baryshnikov had them all. Neither dissident, nor political activist or brawler. On the contrary he was the model soviet ballet dancer performing all the leading parts of the theatre repertoire. In 1973 Baryshnikov gained the rank of Honored Artist of RSFSR and was allowed to hold his benefit performance in Kirovsky Theatre. To the common surprise the 25 year old dancer refused from the classical variations and invited two young choreographers – Mai Murdmaa and Georgy Aleksidze – to stage the pieces specially for this concert. One act ballets “The Prodigal Son”, “Daphnis et Chloe” and “Divertissement” became the undoubted challenge to the soviet academism and the top of Baryshnikov’s creative work within his first homeland. Less than a year later he would take farewell of Soviet Union, Leningrad and Kirovsky Theatre – with no coming back from Canadian tour.
Once being interviewed, Baryshnikov told about his teacher Alexander Pushkin and he said such proper words that Pushkin in addition to dance taught him to be “a man of your own mind”. Probably, he taught Nureev the same. In Soviet Country you were able to be genius, to be talented and outstanding, but never “A Man of your own Mind”. Mikhail Baryshnikov ran away for the artistic freedom, for the possibility to dance Balanchine’s and Petit’s ballets, for the new creative forms, opportunities and self-searching. I suppose he had found what he was looking for.
Baryshnikov and Brodsky
It is a little bit strange, but they didn’t have personal acquaintance in Leningrad. They walked the same streets, probably visited the same houses, gazed into the eyes of Neva, tossed the pebble in the Gulf of Finland… Brodsky left the country in 1972 – the greatest poet – was simply forced to do it, moreover he was deprived of nationality. Shortly before it – in 1969 he wrote:
Thus the brain earned a slug, as a spot where an error occurred
earns a good pointing finger. Or should I hit waterways, sort
of like Christ? Anyway, in these laudable quarters,
eyes dumbfounded by ice and by booze
will reproach you alike for whatever you choose:
traceless rails, traceless waters.
These words became prophetical for Brodsky. For Baryshnikov they became prophetical some years later. They have made friends in emigration – two Russian Americans, the God of Dance and the God of Literature. This is the translation of what Brodsky once said about Baryshnikov:
“A man of a greater mind and intuition. A man who – besides all knows by heart much more poetry than I do. This is strange, but I can not remember how we get acquainted. But I can declare that he impressed me much then and does continue to impress me now. And not with his dancing skills as I am not a big specialist in this sphere. But first of all with his unbelievable natural-born intellect”.
And some more: “I must say, when I see Baryshnikov on stage, it’s a stunning sensation. I even think that it’s not really even ballet that he is doing… In my opinion, it’s pure body metaphysics, something that has burst from the framework of ballet. Mikhail Baryshnikov is some intellegent body that carries with himself a whole world”
There are some poems by Joseph Brodsky dedicated to Baryshnikov, among them the widely known “The art of better days” and a little less known, but probably more severe “To Mikhail Baryshnikov” (from “Part of Speech”). Mikhail Baryshnikov took photos of Brodsky, sometimes it seems he has caught the poet’s soul with the camera.
In middle 1980s Baryshnikov and Brodsky together with Roman Kaplan opened the restaurant called Russian Samovar – now the legendary place in New York City with such a star-guest list including Pastropovich, Vishnevskaya, Dovlatov, Okudzhava, Minelli, Depardieu and many others.
Brodsky died in 1996, 22 years ago, the night from 27th to 28th of January. 27th of January he phoned his friend to congratulate him on his Birthday. Baryshnikov was one of the last persons the great poet was speaking to.
In 2015 the premiere of the one-man show Brodsky/Baryshnikov took place. It is based on the poems of Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky, performed by his friend Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Baryshnikov now celebrates his Anniversary performing this show in Toronto – in the city that once gave him Freedom.
From “Turning Point” to “Sex and the City”
While acting in films Baryshnikov is equally significant and sophisticating as dancing ballet. His dramatic talent was yet noticed in Soviet Union – in 1971 Sergei Ursky gave him a role of Pedro Romero in TV-show “Fiesta” (based on Hemingway’s novel). It continued in Hollywood – with his first role he was Oscar nominated. The film – “Turning point” tells about the dancers of American Ballet. The very good film – lovely, honest, little bit naïve, without vulgarity, gathering wonderful actors. Baryshnikov played a part of the Russian ballet star, his hero was singing with the guitar Vysotsky song. Probably, he wasn’t playing, but living over the camera. In American cinema Baryshnikov mostly appeared in Russian roles, but anyhow they differed from what the majority of Russian actors could get as their usual top was a villain from the Bond films. Baryshnikov heroes are deep souled, individual and it seems like they all speak with his own words. So in “Company Business” his hero Pyotr Grushenko chatting with Gene Hackman’s hero over a shot of “Starka” says ,“I am Russian but not Soviet”. In the iconic scene from “White Nights” movie, before dancing to Vysotsky song, there is Nikolai Rodchenko’s speech and you realize that it is him, Mikhail Baryshnikov who listened to Vysotsky fully out-loud and danced Balanchine and Petit’s choreography while we were silently dreaming of it. And his Aleksandr Petrovsky from “Sex and the City”… Though we’ve heard Mikhail Baryshnikov doesn’t like this role very much, but millions of women all over the world do.
What is the secret to success? While ones are blessed by kismet, the others simply loose themselves on a life-road… The artistic life of a ballet dancer is bright but short. Unfortunately, not everyone can adapt himself to the new reality, to the new life step, that starts after the last performances of “Swan Lake” and “Don Quixote”. In 1989 Baryshnikov left ABT after 10 years of directorship, and he also left the classical ballet and opened the new artistic page of modern dance and dramatic theatre. In 1990 together with American choreographer Mark Morris he established White Oak Dance Project that is named after the animal preservation and land plantation belonging to the project supporter Howard Gillman. The company under Baryshnikov guidance had existed for 12 years.
Through this time the American modern dance had its rebirth. Modern choreography was always popular among American audience, but it was totally separate art direction, that has moved in parallel with the classical dance and these lines have never crossed one another. Mikhail Baryshnikov, the dancer grown up in classical dance traditions, has performed the best creations by modern choreographers. He worked with Jerome Robbins, Frederick Ashton and Roland Petit – they created ballet especially for him. It seems like he overlaid the contemporary forms onto his magnificent experience and with this classical basics the modern dance gained the new breath. The mostly recognizable shows are “Unspoken Territory” by Dana Reitz, where he moves without music; “Heart Beat” where he performs his dance to the sounds of this own heart-beating; and the ballet performance “Achilles Heels” by Richard Move based on Troy Epos.
The dramatic performances with Mikhail Baryshnikov have always become an occasion – he played on Broadway, he was turning into the insect from Kafka’s novel and into the Nobel laureate Ivan Bunin in the play “In Paris”, he played in staging Anton Pavlovich Chekhov’s “Man in Case” and played a role of Vaslav Nijinsky.
Baryshnikov Arts Centre
In 2005 there was a new turn in Baryshnikov’s activity, he built his arts Centre in New-York city – three floors of the unique creative space placed in historical building in neibourghood of Manhattan. This is an artistic platform, as though as a rehearsal base and creative laboratory. Owing to BAC young artists and independent companies gain a chance to rehearse, to practice and to show their creations to the audience. And more, BAC has several activity areas, not only dance, but also music, dramatic theatre, literature… For 12 years of successful working, BAC has sheltered lots of outstanding names, among them Christopher Wheeldon, Benjamin Millepied, William Forsythe, Gidon Kremer; the performances by Theatre-Atelier Piotr Fomenko and the Latvian National Choir took place in New York City.
One more time Mikhail Baryshnikov showed totally new faces of his talent – the successful manager, producer, director, impresario… and collector. For the period of his living in the West, he gathered deeply impressive collection of painting art, including the works by Jean Cocteau, Natalia Goncharova, Ilya Repin, the sketches by Alexandre Benois… In 2013 the collection was exhibited in The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts. Understandably, Mikhail Baryshnikov did not come to the exhibition opening.
Baryshnikov in advertising space
The fashion industry couldn’t pass by a man with such a sophisticating smile, charisma and physicality. Mikhail Baryshnikov is equally seductive either wearing individually fitted tuxedo or worn jeans with a T-shirt. He is equally seductive on recorded videos of his classical exercises, demonstrating endless emotional self-devotion and on the photos from the private party in iconic Studio 54. He was a beloved model for such greater shooting masters as Robert Whitman, Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz…
In 2004 he became a face of the Swiss watch brand Movado, in 2010 together with Annie Leibovitz he took part in Louis Vuitton advertising campaign, and continued a star-list of the brand ambassadors such as Mick Jagger, Coppola family and Mikhail Gorbachev.
In 2015 once again he caused the special interest among all the young and progressive audience after his appearance in advertising film of Rag&Bone fashion brand together with the hip-hop virtuous dancer Lil Buck.
I could be endlessly talking about Baryshnikov, as endlessly watching at him. But all the words I could say, they would be totally insignificant according to his greater personality. There were someone who could speak comparably – I guess Brodsky could… and Dovlatov.
So let’s conclude. And some more to say – from our magazine, from all the ballet people and all the Russian people we are sending our sincerest and warmest congratulations to Mikhail Baryshnikov on his Anniversary with the wishes of happiness, long life and long sparkle of his multi-faceted, his incredible talent. Not even talent, but genius.
Author Ekaterina Bornovitskaya
Photo Annie Leibovitz, M. Seliger
Video Rag & Bone