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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

(continued from page 1)

He lived in a strained household, with much tension between his parents. Both had been previously married. His mother, a beautiful blonde peasant woman, brought a son to the union and his father, a daughter. His half sister, much older, lived in Leningrad when Misha was a boy.

Like many Russian youths, he became involved in sports, playing soccer, fencing and trying his hand at gymnastics. While he would one day be famous for his prodigious vertical leaps, at a mature height of five feet, seven inches, he now laughs off the idea that he might have tried basketball. Later, the dance became his obsession and he studied it exclusively, winning acceptance to the prestigious school of choreography in Riga.

When he was 11, his mother, with whom he was closest, committed suicide. His father soon remarried and Baryshnikov plunged himself into his studies. By the time he was 16, he was accepted into the Vaganova School, in Leningrad, and was taken under the wing of Alexander Pushkin, who had been Rudolf Nureyev's mentor until Nureyev defected in 1961. By the time Baryshnikov was 19, he had entered the world-renowned Kirov Ballet as a soloist, never having toiled in the corps de ballet. Despite his lack of height, it wasn't long before he was dancing romantic leads in classics such as Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote, and his early signature role in Giselle.

With notoriety came a privileged existence by Soviet standards. There was good pay, an apartment next to the Hermitage and trips abroad. "Of course, when you are 17, 18, 19 and you have enough money to play, you are very eager to be the bachelor," he says. "It's fun. But it was always secondary. The first was my career. Not even a career. There was always a certain level I wanted to achieve. I knew that I was almost there. My teacher was still alive at that time. I was totally devoted to him. I always wanted him to see me in the best of shape."


Pushkin died in 1970, the year that Baryshnikov made a trip to London. At 22, he would gain personal acclaim and get a taste of the free world, Simon and Garfunkel records and modern dance. He also met Nureyev in the dancer's luxurious apartment. Nevertheless, Baryshnikov didn't consider leaving Russia. "I never thought it, never. Because I was so involved with what I was doing in the theater, the idea to appendix myself out was beyond my wildest imagination, although there were a thousand examples in front of me."

For Baryshnikov, the most obvious was Natalia Makarova, a dancer with whom he has been romantically linked. She defected on the same trip. "I thought--and it was stupid of me--I thought that she would get lost [in the West]. Seriously, I thought that she had done something wrong. Not wrong ethically, but for her. I knew somehow even at that time that life is not that easy here; even for people with choices, with money. I felt she was out of her mind. That's how stupid I was."

Yet, four years later, at age 26, the dancer vaulted into a new life that would reward him not only with artistic freedom, but personal and financial liberties he had never considered.

"I had to make decisions about finances," he now recalls. "You have to deal with the lawyers. But for me, the most difficult decisions--because I had so many opportunities--were to choose the right ones, with whom to work, where to dance. It was exciting, but also scary. Because I made a lot of mistakes, of course."

With responsibility came freedom. "The biggest shock was that I had travel documents. I could travel without even asking. I go to the embassy, they give me visa and I go. Nobody asks me, 'Can you go to this country?' That was the most amazing sensation for me."

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