Two decades after his great leap westward, Mikhail Baryshnikov is still footloose.
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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.'"
While he has no specific plans for the future, it is clear Baryshnikov knows that change is inevitable. "The biggest transition would be to stop dancing. When it will happen I don't know. It might happen very soon. It might happen not for a few years, because I am probably now in better shape than I was a few years ago, physically. My knee's doing great and I'm doing some really interesting stuff and choreographers want to do work for me."
He rattles off a number of projects that might interest him: solo work under the White Oak umbrella, something with the spoken word, maybe experimental theater, a return to Broadway where he was well received in Metamorphosis. "The night is young," his eyes light up. "One never knows."
Name: MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV
Born: RIGA, LATVIA
First Cigar: "Milos Foreman gave me a really good cigar and explained how to smoke it. I think it was a Château Margaux, the Cuban Davidoff, one of the short ones, those little robustos, a wonderful cigar. And it was like oysters or caviar. It was a good introduction."
Favorite Cigar: "A few years ago a friend of mine gave me an extraordinary present. A Dunhill collection of Cuban cigars from the late '50s, pre-Revolutionary cigars, 40 years old. I have like 20, 30 left, and maybe once a year I'll get one. But I don't stick to one brand. I like to test a few. Of course, if there's a nice Cuban cigar that somebody has..."
Least Favorite: Flavored cigars. "I want the leaf and nothing but the leaf."
Cigar Anecdote: "When we were little kids, the Cubans use to send boxes and boxes to Russia. Of course, they were all dry because they sent them over on slow boats. But for Russians to smoke something without inhaling, it is like to gargle with vodka and then spit it out. It didn't work out."
Smoking Frequency: "If I don't have a cigar on me, I don't miss a cigar. I stopped smoking cigarettes over 15 years ago. That's an addiction, a sick addiction. But the weeks can go by and if I don't have a good cigar, I'm OK."
Favorite Cigar Moment: While golfing. "At home if I don't have a cigar I'm fine, but if I'm on the golf course, ohhh."
Effect on His Art: None. "If it doesn't affect Wayne Gretzky's run on ice, then I think I am in ballet shape."