Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Tireless Dance With Life

On a time-faded recording I watch the silhouette of a young man spinning in a perfectly dizzying fashion. His cabrioles seem unaffected by gravity. He dances through life with grace and pride. His generation crowned him the king of dance, but the king always wished for more than one crown. Presently, “the god of dance” – Mikhail Baryshnikov, is much more than a legendary dancer.

His hair, which was once the color of ripe wheat, has turned grey. His body hasn’t been spared by the passing of time either. However, at 69, the famous Russian dancer who emigrated to America is an example of an artist who is growing old beautifully, through movement.

“Dance is a search for… sort of for yourself” is a phrase that Baryshnikov has often been heard uttering. “I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to dance better than myself.” Little Misha – energetic, athletic, but quiet and withdrawn, has been following this creed since he enrolled to ballet classes at 11 years old.

“Classical ballet was in my blood”, Baryshnikov admits. On the streets of his hometown, Riga (Latvia), Misha was often seen walking on the tips of his toes. It’s how he hoped to escape the misfortune of being a few centimeters short of a perfect dancer. Baryshnikov would never solve the problem of the missing centimeters (he is 1,68 m tall), but dance gifted him the freedom that he never found at home.

His father, a colonel in the Soviet army and a true Stalinist, taught him the destructive effects of tyranny early on in life. His mother, a sensitive, artistic type, killed herself when Misha was a teenager. The tragic circumstances of his life would not deter him from continuing his studies. In 1964, he was admitted to the Vaganova Choreographic Institute (Sankt Petersburg) and, shortly after that, he started receiving awards and golden medals in international ballet competitions. In 1967, he debuted in Giselle, dancing for Mariinsky Theatre, formerly known as Kirov Ballet.

At the end of the 1960s, he was one of the most famous ballet dancers in Russia and had the privilege to travel the world on tours. He was one of those artists – the KGB assumed – incapable of fleeing the USSR. He had a good financial situation, a big apartment, and a car with a personal driver (a luxury at that time); was frantically admired by the public, and held important roles in several performances; he had friends, a fiancée, and a poodle, Foma. However, after a 1974 performance in Canada, Baryshnikov managed to escape and would never return to Russia. “When I left, I escaped government control, but inherited total responsibility for myself”, he later recalled.

In America, Mikhail Baryshnikov was finally able to explore infinite means of artistic expression, free from the clutch of “a stifling lack of enthusiasm and a rigid conformity to political lines” that he complained about in Russia. “I abused my body. I went to certain extremes. I had 12 operations, just pushing it, being stupid a little, but it was interesting.” Curiosity and the willingness to work and learn more carried him from classical ballet and collaborations with important names, such as George Balanchine and Frederick Ashton, to fields in which he was regarded as a pioneer, working with choreographers like Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris. “It was curiosity. I admired their spirit and I wanted to be there, to understand what was happening. (…) I wanted to be in situations which were risky, of course, and I miserably failed on a few occasions, but that was the learning experience”, Baryshnikov said in an interview for The Telegraph.

Photo by Bryan Derballa/ personal archive M. Baryshnikov

After gaining experience as manager of the American Ballet Theatre (1980-1989), Baryshnikov and his friend, Mark Morris, founded the White Oak Dance Project. For 12 years, he worked on what he loved most about the artistic act, the creative process. “When you start to perform, the gypsy life starts. You wake up in the morning and the nerves are starting. I don’t like that. But at rehearsals, I am totally at home”.

From dance to acting, Baryshnikov jumps “from one mountain to another,” as he says. “Turning point” or his autobiographical film, “White nights”, are some of his most memorable on-screen performances, but it is his role in the TV series “Sex and the City” that brings him to the attention of a younger audience and attracts many philanthropists towards his non-profit organisation, Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York. Founded in 2005, his creative laboratory is a meeting place for artists from different fields, a sort of “nirvana” for artists looking for a space of “all possibilities”, where they can create and feel free to take changes. This is where Mr. B, as some young artists call him, comes to work from 9 to 5 when he’s not involved in other projects.

Photo: Leonid Lubianitsky Joseph Brodsky and Mikhail Baryshnikov, New York City, 1985

“I don’t know how much longer I’ll dance”, Baryshnikov says, “but I’ve certainly learned how to pace myself.” As in a tireless dance through the empire of arts, Baryshnikov keeps reinventing himself. Photography, writing and – who knows? – maybe theatre will be his swan song. Baryshnikov always felt at home among the actors and, as a child, he saw theatre as a fascinating world through which he came to love ballet. “Theatre is such a revealing form of art. (…) I always kind of dreamt that one day I will open my mouth on stage.”

On the stage of the Sibiu International Theatre Festival, Mikhail Baryshnikov will speak the language that estranged him and the poetic language of his exiled friend – Iosif Brodksy. “Brodsky/Baryshnikov” is a tribute to the Russian poet who died in 1996. It is not a theatre play, and it isn’t a poetry recital either. It is poetry in movement or, in the words of the director, Alvis Hermanis, “it is an emotional journey deep into the poet’s visceral and complex compositions”.

“Life is the sum of tiny movements”, Baryshnikov’s voice sounds on stage, internalizing Brodsky’s poetry deep within his being. And how can it be otherwise since these poetry verses perfectly encapsulate his own destiny.