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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 2)

Of course, leaving his homeland meant sacrifices as well. "I left very close friends and that was the toughest part. Because, you see, the Russian people get so insanely close to each other as friends. Their friendships are very demanding, their lives are interrelated so much on an everyday basis. Here, people pay a lot of money to go to a shrink. In Russia, you visit your friend at three o'clock in the morning and talk to him. People can call at six o'clock in the morning and say, 'I'm coming,' and this is a must, there is no way out. And I had a few friends like that, but now they are all sort of more or less here. And then I met a couple of wonderful people here."

Even as he was leaving old acquaintances behind, Baryshnikov was gaining instant celebrity status. He accepted invitations to dance as a guest with the top companies around the world and finally settled with the American Ballet Theater. In 1976, he got his wish to explore modern material when Twyla Tharp created Push Comes to Shove for him. He found his classic technical ability meshed well with her contemporary ideas, and a long-standing relationship developed with the choreographer, whom one critic would call "Baryshnikov's inspired biographer," because the pieces she created for him seemed to mirror what was going on in his life. They would later collaborate in a 1985 television special, "Baryshnikov by Tharp," which garnered two Emmys, and he would work with her during his tenure as artistic director at the American Ballet Theater as well as commission a work from her for White Oak.

In 1977, he made his first feature film, getting an Oscar nomination for his performance in the ballet-themed The Turning Point, alongside Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft. The following year, he joined the New York City Ballet under the artistic leadership of George Balanchine, the venerable master of American dance, as a principal dancer. While critics have faulted the alliance for not living up to its potential, Baryshnikov has maintained that for him the mere experience of working with Balanchine helped to shape his art and his overall approach to the medium.

While the dancer was enjoying triumphs on stage, he was also gaining a certain celebrity in the gossip columns as a young man left to his own devices in New York. "Of course, I was sometimes in the Studio 54 crowd," he remembers with a wry smile, "and, you know, here and there, because it was always parties. Martha Graham and Vladimir Horowitz were there and Yves St. Laurent and a few others. It was just a sign of the times. And it was fun. But it was not fun when you get out at four in the morning and you have a 10 o'clock class. That's not fun at all. You have to perform next day. And so you do this to yourself." He stops and slaps his own wrist. "And then if you do go out sometimes, you go out when you don't work."

Nevertheless, the thought of the greatest dancer of our time doing the funky chicken on a disco floor is an amusing picture. "I rarely did it," he quickly protests. "I'm not good at that kind of dancing. But I like to watch people dance."

People also liked to watch him, and soon Baryshnikov, who has famously claimed, "I am not the first straight dancer or the last," was being matched in the press with some of the day's most stunning women--sometimes rightfully, sometimes not. One might assume that the press's fascination with his love life is in part to blame for his reluctance to do interviews (for this article, questions about his family were off-limits). "It was almost fun for a while," he recalls. "I'm coming out of the movie theater and I am with this girl or that girl, who cares? I was surprised that there was a lot of speculation that was not true. But they'd say, 'You did not give them straight answer, they will try to create story then.' Well, I say, 'I don't give a flying fuck what kind of story.' I was kind of amused, sometimes annoyed. Then I just learned to go inand out of places through the back door or not to talk to certain people about certain things."

He's also changed his peripatetic ways somewhat. A relationship with Jessica Lange, which produced a daughter (now a teenager), ended when she left him for playwright Sam Shepard after conflicting careers strained their situation. Baryshnikov has since settled down with former dancer Lisa Rinehart, with whom he has three children and shares a house in upstate New York. Although he has never married, his devotion to family life can be surmised from the way he has set up his dance company. "We don't work in December, we don't work on certain holidays. We always spend holidays home with our families or lovers, brothers, sisters, husbands."

Without any prompting, Baryshnikov is soon violating his own pre-interview condition, gleefully describing his children (ages 3, 5 and 8). "They play together and then suddenly they are fighting like cats, and then a few minutes later they kiss each other." Just as quickly he becomes wistful remembering his own not-so-full family life as a youth.

Speaking to Baryshnikov, there is a sense of a mercurial artist who darts from one mood to the next, using his mastery of body language to telegraph each emotion with an economical point of the chin or turn of the wrist as he cradles his cigar. And always there is the perfect posture that lends him stature despite his lack of height and makes you self-consciously sit up in your chair rather than feel like a slouch.

A couple of waiters are engaged in a spirited argument nearby as they set up for the dinner shift, and Baryshnikov sternly chastises them, "Guys, guys, guys, guys, guys," then turns back, grinning. "Russian disagreements are never on a level of," he pushes down at the air with both hands, "just like that. There is always volume involved. Our idea of persuasion is sometimes more an increase of the volume instead of logic."

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