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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 3)

The Russian Samovar, which in an earlier incarnation served as a hangout for Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack when it was called Jilly's in the 1950s, has now become a sort of club to the Russian intelligentsia, although Baryshnikov downplays his own involvement with the growing Russian-American community. "It is not a piece of nostalgia for the Russians, it is a new life for all of us," he says, explaining the direction of the restaurant, which has just added a cigar bar on its second floor, using appointments that both reflect and reinterpret his Russian heritage. "I have some Russian friends. But probably only 10 percent. I don't hang out usually in the big Russian communities in Brooklyn and New Jersey."

Nor is he close to the developments in his former homeland. "I wonder. I look. I care. But I do not ever get involved in any political sides. Nor in any cultural events. I am very much different person now and I don't understand a lot of things that have happened, the very sort of bitter lessons of democratic reforms," he says. "It is a very difficult period for Russians economically, morally, mentally, ethically. The Soviet system destroyed any true understanding inside the human being of human rights issues. It is almost a genetic zero to really feel free and understand the price of freedom and the responsibility of being a free man. That's, I think, a very important demand of democracy in the free world; it obliges the person not to look up to any sort of political system and ask what I should do next. You have to decide. And it's a scary thought for a person who has lived their whole life under a totalitarian regime. He'd rather be under some general or a tsar or a politburo. At least he knows that he will get his little pension and he knows he will get his bottle of vodka. And he'll say: 'OK, I'll shut up. I don't need this freedom of speech.'"

It is hard to imagine Baryshnikov himself playing that role. He has such an air of self-assurance tempered with an ability for cold self-assessment. He has obstinately guided his career from ballet to modern dance, making excursions into the movies, on Broadway, but never overstaying his welcome.

"It's the natural time clock in me," he says matter-of-factly. "I know when it gets to certain point when it's already above the normal." But in the same breath that he admits that some dance pieces are now behind him physically, he bluntly states that he is now a better dancer than he has ever been. "I am in situation where I can sort of deliver right now. All my life experience, stage experience, work with choreographers, all aspects of my life, contribute to certain elements of stage presence, and that's what dance is about."

At one point in the 1985 film White Nights, in which he plays a ballet dancer who has defected and been recaptured by the Soviets, Baryshnikov watches film footage of himself as a young man making the heroic leaps in which he seemed to defy gravity, suspended for moments in midair. To be called upon to act while peering into a mirror of one's own lost youth would seem eerie for any actor, especially considering the knee problems that have robbed him of some of that ability. Not for Baryshnikov. "It happens all the time. It's even weirder when you travel through France and you see pieces of choreography that were done for you 15 or 20 years ago and now they are being done by another dance company. And it's," he affects a whiny voice, " 'Oh my piece, they are dancing it.' It's like: 'They are wearing my shirt.' It's a more interesting perspective on how time flies."

In the same film, he takes an unexpected turn, dancing a melange of styles with co-star Gregory Hines, a tap dancer. "It was a fake, of course," he says in a not-uncommon moment of detached self-criticism. "I cannot tap to save my life. I cannot do buffalo step and keep the rhythm. It's too difficult. Those guys are awesome, you know. Gregory and Savion Glover, and the old guys too, Fred Astaire. They are cool cats."

Despite his success, he says, "I never was serious about a career as a film actor. I did adequate job but not more than that. I thought it might have led to something if there were some more interesting scripts around, some light dramatic comedies with dancing. But it was probably in the late '80s, early '90s and there was nobody seriously interested in a film with dance. Now that's coming back."

For now, his passion is for modern dance and White Oak. He claims his other financial interests, including a perfume marketed as "Misha" and a line of stylish bodywear, exist solely as a way to support his family and dance projects.

Beyond the unusual financial structure of White Oak, which is named for a plantation owned by one of its founders, George Gilman (who donated the space that the troupe uses), the company is unusual for its democratic structure, especially given that Baryshnikov is so extra-luminary next to some of the troupe's unknowns. "We don't have Mister Whip," he says. "We don't have any dance captain or something. We have assigned people to take care of things on a voluntary basis. We have an office of two people."

The company also has a communal structure for making decisions. "If we need a dancer, everybody has suggestions, everybody brings a couple of people who they think are great and who might fit in. We work together for a few weeks and decide which one fits. For example, there is one girl who is trying out for next year. One of our dancers brought her in. She called me and said, 'This is wonderful dancer, you should see her, she would be a neat person for next year.'"

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