Close encounter with legendary Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov
The Monaco Press Club organized an exclusive interview with legendary Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov on June 28, 2016 at the Yacht Club of Monaco, in the presence of my idol Jean-Christophe Maillot, artistic director extraordinaire of the Ballets of Monte-Carlo. The two men share a mutual friendship and admiration for each other. Having a close encounter with Misha, one of the best dancers of all times, was truly memorable.
Mikhail Baryshnikov was born in 1948 and began studying ballet around age nine in his native Riga, Latvia, that at that time was part of the Soviet Union. He did it against his father’s wishes, a Soviet military colonel, but with the blessing of his mother, who sadly took her own life when he was still a young boy. He was quoted saying: “I adored my mother, and I will always have extraordinary memories about her, she opened the doors for me to appreciate arts.” In his early 20’s he was the star of the famed Kirov Ballet and had been already described as “the most perfect dancer I have ever seen” by Clive Barnes of The New York Times. Athletically, physically and artistically gifted, he delighted the public around the world with his impressive wild leaps, his whirling pirouettes, impeccable technique and expressiveness.
On June 29, 1974, at the age of 26, he defected from the Soviet Union to Canada after a performance at the O’Keefe Centre in Toronto, never looking back. Later on he settled in the USA at the American Ballet Theatre, where in 1980 he became the artistic director. He left in 1989 to cofound a modern dance company, the White Oak Dance Project, and take on film, theater and TV roles, winning an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Yuri Kopeikine in the film The Turning Point, and a Tony for his acting. He even became known as Carrie Bradshaw’s older Russian boyfriend on Sex and the City. His photographs were on display in London’s Mayfair He is now the artistic director of the Baryshnikov Arts Center, and at age 68 he still performs.
In spite of defecting, Baryshnikov proudly affirms that the Soviet system gave him his occupation, his craft, they schooled him, recognizing that it was the most valuable present that a government can give a young person, but he wanted to escape government control over his individual persona. He asserts that in the USA there is freedom but unfortunately no real support for the arts.
In 2005 Misha opened the Baryshnikov Arts Center as a creative space for artists from around the world, with the objective to nurture and fund ballet projects and others arts as well. The multi-discipline complex BAC, located in Hell’s Kitchen in midtown Manhattan, celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2015, serving approximately 500 artists and more than 22,000 audience members through presentations and artist residences. Rudolf Nureyev Dance Foundation pledge USD 3 million to establish an endowment and make a studio on BAC’s fourth floor after Nureyev to inspire a new generation of dancers and choreographers.
Baryshnikov said that after almost 60 years of performing, he is still weary of not meeting the audience expectations. He said it is necessary to find an internal calmness to take that first step to perform and more abstractly when it comes to implementing an idea or vision. As a performer you learn many skills to achieve the results you want. As a multifaceted artist, his career has been about reinvention –classical to modern dance, stage to film to TV, performing to managing and back again, more like an explorer following his urge for adventure.
In that creative search Baryshnikov also turned to photography for the past 17 years finding yet another way to express himself. His project Dancing Away allowed himself to experiment capturing the dancing body in space that became more like paintings. He knows most of the dancers and choreographers whose work he photographs. He said, “They allow me to be a fly on the wall. They don’t pay attention to me and sometimes I am allowed practically on stage with them.”
He has worked with other legends of dance, like Alexander Pushkin, George Balanchine, Twyla Tharp, Jerome Robbins and Alvin Alley. But when asked about who inspired him he would not name one specific person, because as he once said: “I like to kiss, but I don’t tell”. As for being a mentor to others he considers himself more like a cheerleader, but the most important thing for him is for the artist to understand who you are as a person on stage, figure out what goes through your veins and your mind. He advises dancers to have a life besides dance, and recommends for them to visit art galleries, attend music concerts, read books, to broaden their minds. He also encourages them to get closer to the audience and ask what they did not like about your performance, as he considers that to be more valuable than listening to critic reviews.
Ballet dancers demand a lot from their bodies, and it is in the public domain that Baryshnikov has had many operations, knees, bunions, shoulder, ankles, and he said he survived thanks to great doctors. He wonders about mortality every day, what I would describe as the sun coming out and not finding you. He has often quoted Woody Allen by saying: “I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
Letter to a Man about Vaslav Nijinsky’s plunge into inferno
Yesterday evening, Friday, July 1, I had the opportunity to watch Misha perform on the stage of the magnificent Salle Garnier in the Opera of Monte-Carlo, portraying Vaslav Nijinsky’s plunge into inferno in “Letter to a Man” by iconic director Robert Wilson, running through July 3, 2016. Both dancer and choreographer combined their talents to create a new act based on the famous diaries, written in less than six weeks in 1919 and published in 1936, of the celebrated Russian dancer and choreographer Nijinsky (1889-1950), who danced in Diaghilev’s Russian Ballets, documenting the young man’s unavoidable descent into insanity.
Mikhail Baryshnikov and Robert Wilson had first worked together on a video portrait of Saint Sebastian, and then on The Old Woman, a theater piece based on the writings of absurdist Russian author Daniil Kharms. Letter to a Man, is their third collaboration, a theatrical work performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov, who enters the fragmented mind of the great dance artist. As always in Wilson’s works movements, text, lights, set and music are equal parts of the same creation where, as he says, “all theatre is dance.”
As Robert Wilson’s staging of the Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky opens, we find Mikhail Baryshnikov as the tormented dancer in Budapest in 1945, where he and his wife, the Hungarian aristocrat Romola de Pulsky, had found refuge with her family. These are the final weeks of World War II and battles between German and Russian soldiers rage in the ravaged town. Nijinsky’s mental health had already deteriorated in Switzerland at the close of the First World War. His Diaries are an extraordinary document of his struggle to avoid going mad and to strive to understand what was happening to him. When he stopped writing his Diary, he locked himself away, and remained isolated for more than two decades, only under the care of his wife. But as another catastrophe in Europe draws to its close, the great artist seems to be coming to life again, and we are able to visit him behind the walls of his silence. For Nijinsky, time has stood still, and he is alone with his ghosts, especially that of Diaghilev the lord of the dance, who had been his lover and the impresario who first put him on center stage before the whole ballet world.
Henry Miller said about the diaries: “It is a communication so naked, so desperate, that it breaks the mold. We are face to face with reality, and it is almost unbearable…had he not gone to the asylum we would have had in Nijinsky a writer equal to the dancer.”
“This is not about Nijinsky, per se,” Baryshnikov explained. And he added: “It is about this extraordinary book, miraculously written in six months. It is about a troubled man and his relationship with his art, with God, with family, with moral issues. We have avoided recreating anything. There is not one gesture. It is not about this … ” “It is a strange parallel story about the voice of this person, not his physicality.”
“The body cannot lie. You cannot be somebody else onstage, no matter how good of an actor or dancer or singer you are. When you open your arms, move your finger, the audience knows who you are, you know.” Mikhail Baryshnikov
This is a great article, Celina, a joy to read. Musharraf knows my cousin, Helene Alexopoulos, now retired, who was a principal dancer at New York City ballet. She had been selected by Balanchine. Throughout her career she had opportunities to work with Misha, even though he was at ABT.
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Meeting legends like Baryshnikov is one of life’s fantastic opportunities! I also admire Helen Alexopoulos!