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#BornThisDay: Mikhail Baryshnikov

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January 27, 1948Михаи́л Никола́евич Бары́шников:

“I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to to dance better than myself.”

I know, you think of male ballet dancers and you immediately think gay. Yet, we know it is a broken stereotype and Mikhail Baryshnikov proves it.

But, in a response to the violence targeting Russian LGBTQ citizens and legislation there banning gay “propaganda”, Baryshnikov publicly stated:

“Any discrimination and persecution of gay people is unacceptable. My life has been immensely enriched by gay mentors, colleagues, and friends” and said equal treatment is a basic human right. It is sad that we still have to even speak about this in the 21st century.”

Here is my Baryshnikov anecdote: I was working at The Metropolitan Opera House in the spring of 1977, and American Ballet Theatre was in the house. For about 10 days, I would take my lunch to the back row of the top balcony and watch the company rehearse. Even from that distance, I could feel the electricity emanating from the new Russian dancer. One afternoon, I found him studying one of the magnificent Marc Chagall tapestries in the lobby, and because I am fearless, I walked up to him, said: “Excuse me, but I wanted to say that I have friends who worked on The Turning Point, and they declare that you will absolutely receive an Academy Award nomination.” The 5-foot 6-inch handsome Russian looked right through me and swiftly, gracefully moved away. He did not suggest we go enjoy some vodka together, my original plan.

Playing Carrie Bradshaw’s Russian lover who whisks her away to Paris in the final season the HBO’s Sex And The City brought him a whole new group of gay fans. Sarah Jessica Parker says he was cast because he was the only man who could match Big.

Baryshnikov defected from the USSR in 1974, and he has never returned to Russia:

“I love Russian people and culture. I don’t like their government, that’s obvious, and I don’t think the country is going in the right direction in many ways, but it’s not my concern. Well it is my emotional concern. I still have a brother and sister there… It’s kind of awful.”

In 2013, a Russian law criminalizing the distribution of materials among minors in support of “non-traditional” sexual relationships, was enacted. The law has resulted in the numerous arrests of Russian LGBTQ citizens and there been a surge of homophobic propaganda, violence, and hate crimes, many of whom use the law as justification.

Baryshnikov posted his strong support of Russian queer people on the website No More Fear Foundation, a U.S.-based advocacy group that seeks to address the growing crisis over LGBTQ Rights in the Russian Federation and neighboring countries. He joined celebrities including Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Sir Elton John in speaking out for LGBTQ Rights in Russia.

Baryshnikov was born to Russian parents in Riga, Latvia, which was under Soviet control at the time. He grew up to become one of the leading dancers of the 20th century, his fame eclipsed by only fellow Russians Rudolf Nureyev, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Vladimir Vasiliev.

Baryshnikov’s life was difficult as a child. His father was a Soviet colonel, and they did not get along. In his early teens, his mother killed herself. Afterwards, he threw himself into ballet class, and in 1963, at 16-years-old, he began training with Alexander Pushkin at the Vaganova Choreographic Institute.

In 1967, Baryshnikov made his stage debut with the Kirov Ballet, dancing in Giselle, and later becoming the company’s premier danseur noble. Choreographer Leonid Jakobson tailored Vestris to suit Baryshnikov’s talents specifically. In 1969, at the First International Ballet Competition in Moscow, he danced the lead role in Vestris, becoming the big surprise at the competition. The ballet is based on the life of Auguste Vestris, the most famous dancer of the 18th century. A braggart and schemer, Vestris called himself the “King of the Dance” and would say: “Today, Europe knows three great men: Frederick the Great, Napoleon, and me!”

The work became one of Baryshnikov’s signature pieces.

Dazzling audiences with his astounding physical and technical skills as well as his emotional expressiveness, Baryshnikov’s fame quickly grew. By the late 1960s, he was the USSR’s leading male ballet dancer.

Despite his fame, Baryshnikov grew tired of the stifling artistic atmosphere in Communist Russia, and in 1974, following a concert by the Bolshoi Ballet in Toronto, he defected from the Soviet Union to Canada searching for personal and creative freedom. He explained his defection from his native country, saying:

“I am individualist and there it is a crime”.

Baryshnikov joined the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), where he appeared in productions, often partnered with Gelsey Kirkland, from 1974 to 1978. Audiences were crazy to see his flawless, seemingly effortless classical technique and the extraordinary airborne maneuvers he executed with zest and precision.

Photograph by Max Waldman (1919-1981), in “Le Jeune Homme et La Mort: (1975) National Portrait Gallery

He also explored other professional opportunities. As I predicted, he was nominated for that Academy Award in the dance world drama The Turning Point (1977), starring Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine, which helped awaken Americans’ interest in ballet. Christmas season 1977, CBS broadcast his highly acclaimed American Ballet Theatre production of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. It remains the most popular and most often shown television production of the favorite ballet. It features Baryshnikov in the title role with Kirkland. Baryshnikov won two Emmy Awards for a pair of television dance specials, Baryshnikov On Broadway (1979) with Liza Minelli and Nell Carter, and Baryshnikov In Hollywood (1982) with Shirley MacLaine, Bernadette Peters and Charles Nelson Reilly.

Via YouTube

Baryshnikov left the ABT for the New York City Ballet in 1978, leaping at the chance to work with choreographers George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. His time with the NYCB was short, however. Baryshnikov returned to the ABT as artistic director and a principal dancer in 1980.

Baryshnikov and Rob Besserer by Annie Leibovitz, 1990, via YouTube

Never an artist to do just one thing, Baryshnikov did more film work, starring opposite Gregory Hines in the dance drama White Nights (1985), and on stage in a 1989 Broadway production of the Franz Kafka play The Metamorphosis, winning a Tony Award.

In 1990, Baryshnikov left the ABT and moved toward modern dance, co-creating the avant-garde White Oak Dance Project with Mark Morris. Baryshnikov:

“It is less mannered, more democratic, more transparent and, from my point of view, closer to the hearts of people”.

Through his new company, he danced in and supported new pieces created by Twyla Tharp, Jerome Robbins and Mark Morris.

In 2002, Baryshnikov disbanded White Oak Project, and in 2004, through his foundation, he opened the Baryshnikov Arts Center in NYC. It is a facility created as a gathering place for artists from all disciplines, with a large theater and smaller performance spaces, plus studios and offices.

In December 2000, Baryshnikov was celebrated for his lifetime of extraordinary achievement with a Kennedy Center Honor.

Despite knee troubles, Baryshnikov continued to dance into his 60s.

Now he has mostly put away his dancing shoes. He starred in the play In Paris in 2011 and 2012. The following year, Baryshnikov starred in Anton Chekhov’s Man In A Case at Berkeley Rep. He performed a reading of the works by Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky in Baryshnikov’s native Riga in 2015. Titled Brodsky/Baryshnikov, it was performed in the original Russian. He took Brodsky/Baryshnikov on an international tour, beginning in Tel Aviv in January 2016 and it was later in New NYC, still in the original Russian.

He is also an especially gifted and skilled photographer. His beautiful pictures of people in motion have been seen in important galleries in the USA and Europe.

“When I look through the lens, in a way, I’m trying to be a dancer, too. I sometimes don’t even notice when I press the button. Boom boom boom and then the piece is over.”

Baryshnikov is married to former ABT dancer Lisa Rinehart. The couple has three children. He has a fourth child, a daughter, from his previous relationship with Jessica Lange. He also had a romance with Gelsey Kirkland, when they both worked at New York City Ballet and ABT. In 2002, he told Larry King that he did not “believe in marriage in the conventional way”.

In 1986, he became a naturalized citizen of the USA. Last spring, Baryshnikov was granted citizenship by the Republic of Latvia. He stated that the decision was based on memories of his first 16 years living in Latvia:

“It was there that my exposure to the arts led me to discover my future destiny as a performer. Riga still serves as a place where I find artistic inspiration.”

Via YouTube

Baryshnikov turns an astonishing 70-years-old today. He says that the compensation for ageing is working with new people.

“I’m afraid to get bored with myself. Because time is ticking. Let’s face it, the thought of mortality, especially in men, gets stupidly inflamed. Women at least know they will outlive men.”


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