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Dancing Free

Two decades after his great leap westward, Mikhail Baryshnikov is still footloose.
Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97

Mikhail Baryshnikov knows something about liberty. One night in June 1974, the Russian dancer stepped from a stage in Toronto where he was appearing as a guest star with the Bolshoi Ballet concert group and literally ran to freedom. He stepped outside, followed by a crowd of confused fans, and sprinted to a waiting car that spirited him away from Soviet agents into a life of independence in the United States. Twenty-three years after his sensational defection, Baryshnikov still has a highly attuned sense of what it means to be free. Sitting in Manhattan's Russian Samovar, a restaurant in which this born-again capitalist owns a stake, he is smoking a vintage Partagas Churchill and explaining why his modern dance troupe eschews government grants and corporate donations:

"I realize that I cannot belong to a nonprofit organization because when you receive grants, you have to make such great compromises with your artistic plans and be involved with fund-raising and do a lot of stuff, which I really don't care to do because life is really too short." In a trademark Misha gesture that emphasizes the hawk-like intensity in his fierce blue eyes, he turns away, neck straight and chin held high, before turning back to describe his stint in the 1980s as artistic director of the American Ballet Theater. "I was really sacrificing my dance career and myself in order to go and talk to a few people about money--going to this endowment and that endowment, and this and that corporation.I just said," and his voice becomes at once exhausted and exasperated, "'I can't do this anymore, I want to do exactly what I want to do. I'd rather gamble on the box office than beg for a grant.'"

So eight years ago, Baryshnikov effected another great defection, leaving the confines of the conservative and self-impressed New York dance world to strike out with a small touring troupe, the White Oak Dance Project. Dedicated to bringing modern choreography to the public, the company violated many conventions. For an art form that usually depends on subsidies, the headline dancer put up his own cash. In a discipline that celebrates youth, the company gathered a corps of elite dancers, half of whom were over 40. Instead of following the dance tradition of single-minded autocracy, it fostered an atmosphere of collaboration. Then it ignored the supposed center of the dance universe, New York City, for four years. And the influence of the Big Apple notwithstanding, the formula worked.

"We really never struggle," Baryshnikov says of his troupe of nine dancers who perform around the world. "Sometimes we don't have enough money for our next project, which means I have to put my own money up sometimes. But for me, this is not a big money-making venture; I can choose just the projects from our point of view that are totally right and not worry about money."

For this classically trained dancer who is a self-confessed "new-work junky," what is "totally right" is a succession of modern pieces that showcases both the work of some of the world's most renowned choreographers (Twyla Tharp, Merce Cunningham, José Limón and Mark Morris, for example) and gifted unknown artists (such as Kevin O'Day, Kraig Patterson and Joachim Schlömer). "I go a lot to see young people downtown in little theaters," Baryshnikov enthuses. "It's great. If you start somebody's career, it's so exciting."

Vitality, daring, experimentation and emotion are what attracts this dancer who spent his salad days repeating traditional works for the Kirov Ballet. These are also some of the concepts he tried to advance during his nine-year stint at the American Ballet Theater. These directions did not always mesh with the will of the New York dance establishment, which Baryshnikov describes as a mosaic of the interests of choreographers, the board of directors, critics and the audiences. "Ahh, I was the wrong person probably for that," he now sighs resignedly, "although I am very proud of the years I spent there. The dancers are doing good. Now it is a very successful company. Probably that is what audience and critics want. It might not necessarily be my choices and I would definitely not take the company in this direction. But if everybody is happy, this means maybe I was wrong. But I kind of lost interest in the classical dance."

For Baryshnikov, this is nothing new. He says it was one of the driving forces behind his departure from the Soviet Union. "I was very much interested in the modern choreography, because I didn't want to continue to do the same stuff. And it was no way over there I could have done what I have done here. I wanted to experience in my skin the contact with choreographers and different styles."

Asked what would have become of him had he not defected, Baryshnikov grimaces. "That's scary thought, that's really scary thought. Who knows? I probably would've been like a lot of them. I don't want to even think about it."

He relates that the defection wasn't something he put a lot of thought into at the time. "Two hours. I never planned it. A few hours over the night. It's a long story, but I got in touch with some of my friends and I said, 'I think I'm ready. I just can't go back.'"

As Baryshnikov describes it, he didn't have much of a home to go back to. Born in Riga, Latvia, in 1948, he grew up the son of a stern Stalinist colonel in what was essentially an occupying army. The dancer remembers the region as having a great tradition in the arts, music and crafts, as well as lively theater that gave him great momentum, but he didn't consider it home. "We were uninvited guests there," he says. "I was born there; it was a geographic accident."

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