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Dancing Free

Two decades after his great leap westward, Mikhail Baryshnikov is still footloose.
| By Jack Bettridge | From 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."

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."

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."

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.'"

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."



Occupation: DANCER
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."

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