– Dancing is life for me. Unfortunately, the professional life of ballet dancers is much shorter than that of an actor. But if I can’t dance, there’s a lot more I can do. Ideas, visions are important. And I still don’t miss that – said a few years ago Mikhail Baryshnikov, who, according to the undivided assessment of the profession, entered the anthology of world ballet as one of the greatest dancers in history, which in the text “The life story of Mikhail Baryshnikov”, be described!
And, one of those visions that he mentioned is the play “Barišnjikov / Brodski”, with Miša delighted the audience at the Terazije Theater in Belgrade. It is a solo play based on poems by Josif Brodski, directed by Alvis Hermanis, director of the New Theater in Riga.
– This play is like a collective session with Brodski. I try to speak in his voice, to use his manners, sometimes I imitate him. And then suddenly the tape with the real voice of Joseph starts. I remembered well that Brodsky insisted that only poets should read poetry aloud, and ordinary mortals quietly and inwardly – said Baryshnikov about a play in which he is not a classical ballet dancer, but has a lot of movement on the stage.
Apart from the New Theater, the institution “Baryshnikov Arts Center”, which Mikhail founded in November 2005 in Manhattan, New York, is also responsible for the creation of the play. The large building on three floors, which he envisioned as a refuge for all kinds of performing arts, primarily dance, caused many suspicious eyebrows. However, even the most skeptical had to admit that they had no reason to disbelieve: today, Mikhail Baryshnikov’s art center is the starting point for many young talents, famous names, but also complete anonymity, which the great ballet dancer does not shy away from.
– I firmly believe that no one is born as an artist, ballet dancer, actor, musician. To become great in what you want, you have to want it so badly that everything else falls into the background – he explained.
Mikhail Nikolayevich Baryshnikov was born on January 27, 1948, in Riga, today’s capital of Latvia, then one of the republics of the USSR. Father Nikolai, who was an officer in the Soviet army until 1944, was transferred to a new job that year – he became a lecturer at the military academy in Riga. His mother, Alexandra Kiselyova, was a withdrawn woman who lived in the shadow of her husband. Along with her only son, she had only one passion: ballet. In the country of great ballet tradition, she had the opportunity to see many unforgettable performances of the ballet house “Kirov”, so she passed on her affinity to her son.
Young Mikhail, who was very attached to his mother from an early age, became so interested in ballet that he started dancing classes at the age of nine. Although the father was not enthusiastic about it, the mother was persistent, and Mikhail did not let him be shaken anymore. At the age of twelve, he enrolled in ballet school and immediately delighted the professors. But then something happened that left a mark on the soul of young Baryshnikov forever: his mother killed herself, and the circumstances of that act were never clarified. She did not leave behind any letter, message, nor did she suggest that something like that could happen. Mikhail was broken, but his mother’s death somehow solidified his decision to dedicate his life to ballet.
– When you are a child, and especially when you have the support in my mother that I had, you cannot compare the death of your mother with anything. The world is simply collapsing for you – he said on one occasion.
In the fall of 1964, he enrolled in the prestigious ballet school “Vaganova”, in what was then Leningrad, and the following year, he won the first prize for young dancers at an international competition in Varna, Bulgaria. All previous suspicions, which occasionally arose mainly because he was left without his mother’s support, disappeared without a trace. As early as 1966, he became a member of the famous ballet “Kirov”, and only a year later, he raised the audience to its feet when he danced in “Giselle”, and then with a role in “The Queen of Spades”.
Prominent Soviet choreographers, such as Oleg Vinogradov, Constantine Sergeyev, Igor Chernikov and Leonid Jakobson, began to stage ballet choreographer adapted to Baryshnikov. Critics have described him as a superlative, so one of the most prominent, Clive Barnes, said Baryshnikov was “the best dancer he has ever seen”.
The ballet “Kirov”, as one of the most prestigious theaters in the world, has often been a guest in prestigious cultural centers in Europe, America and Australia, and Mikhail, as the star of his home, was brilliant on all stages.
Young and ambitious, full of avant-garde ideas so that ballet could be modernized and made even more attractive to the audience, Baryshnikov began to think about how to reach the West. At that time, namely, the rigid policy of the USSR was extremely ruthless: free travel outside the country was simply out of the question.
Departure from the USSR
During one of his numerous visits to London in the mid-1970s, Baryshnikov decided that he no longer wanted to live in a country where he was so constrained.
– I have never been particularly attached to Mother Russia. While living in Leningrad, I knew the rules of the game and, like everyone, bowed my head and made sure I wasn’t wrong. I respected unwritten obligations, pretended to agree with a system that was simply creepy. You should have known that you were dealing with party leaders, with dangerous people from the KGB secret service, with the rules they imposed. In fact, it was all scary. So what was good, and of course there was, fell into the background. After a while, it all starts to tire you and endlessly frustrate you, and then you realize that you are no longer ready to endure such torture – he said later.
Unlike the “ordinary” citizens of the then Soviet Union, top athletes and artists had at least the opportunity to see how people live in the “rotten West”, so more and more of them remained outside the country’s borders as soon as the opportunity presented itself.
Baryshnikov took advantage of the guest appearance of the ballet “Kirov” in Canada, in 1974, and after the performances, he did not return to his homeland. Despite the fact that he was already world-famous at that time, Mikhail knew that his decision was not harmless, so, with the help of friends he gained on numerous visits, he stayed in Toronto, seeking political asylum. After the Canadian authorities complied with his request, he remained for a time as a member of the Canadian National Ballet, and then moved to New York, where he still lives today.
Although he came from the USSR, a country to which the Americans were paranoid intolerant, Baryshnikov was quickly accepted. Moreover, due to his talent and artistic personality, in 1975 he became the main male dancer at the American Ballet Theater, where he played with the biggest names in the US ballet scene.
His role in “Krcko Orascic”, by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, delighted Americans so much that before Christmas, 1977, the ballet was recorded for television and is shown even today.
His popularity grew so much that the media started calling him only Misha, the nickname his mother called him. At the same time, he danced in the New York City Ballet, which was then led by the famous George Balanshin, a man who, before Baryshnikov, flatly refused to cooperate with one of the greatest legends of ballet, Rudolf Nureyev. Baryshnikov soon embarked on a 15-month tour of the world with the permanent ensemble of the New York City Ballet, when, in addition to classical ballet, he also promoted modern dance.
Driven by freedom, which was chronically hungry in the USSR, he ruthlessly wasted energy. In addition to constant engagements in ballet houses, going on tours and guest appearances, he began to be attracted to film and television. He accepted the role of Russian ballet dancer Yuri Kopeikin in Herbert Ross’s film “Life Milestone” (1977), in which he starred alongside Shirley McLain, Anne Bancroft and Leslie Brown. The film was a great success, and in 1978, Baryshnikov even won an Oscar nomination.
Driven by new challenges, he accepted roles in two more films: “White Nights” (1985), in which he danced to the choreography of the famous Twili Tarp, and “Dancers” (1987), and he also appeared in some entertainment and music shows on ABC. And CBS, in which he played music from Hollywood movies and Broadway shows.
Baryshnikov soon experienced the recognition he could only dream of in the USSR: in 1980, he became the artistic director and chief dancer of the American Ballet Theater, and on June 3, 1986, he received American citizenship.
Privately, Misha was not a person who raised a lot of dust. He kept his previous connections, especially the one with the ballerina Galsey Kirkland, with whom he lived for several years after arriving in the USA, away from the public eye.
– Miša is the greatest dancer I have ever seen. I saw his first show back in the USSR, and I remember very well that I thought he was dancing like a moving image. I have never seen such grace, ease of jumping, such a perfect posture before – said Galsey Kirkland later.
Fascinated by Baryshnikov, she left the ensemble of the New York City Ballet and moved to the American Ballet Theater, just to be closer to him. They performed together in several shows and were on numerous guest appearances, but the connection between them became looser over time. However, as none of them were prone to excesses, the journalists left them alone. It was only later that it became known that Gelsi, to a large extent, stifled the creativity of Mikhail Baryshnikov. Namely, she was so obsessed with him that she mystified his talent and skills, so she tried to bind him exclusively to herself, which necessarily led to the breakup of their relationship.
However, when Misha met actress Jessica Lang in 1980, the paparazzi started teasing them. At that time, he still spoke very little English, but Lang spoke French, so they communicated in that language. Namely, Baryshnikov, according to a very demanding Russian education program, mastered that language as a child. In 1981, a daughter, Alexandra Baryshnikov, was born in their relationship, with whom the father – according to his own confession – spent too little time. The relationship with Jessica Lang lasted for several years, but it did not last.
Baryshnikov then began a relationship with a former ballerina, Lisa Reinhart, with whom he had three children: a son Peter (1989) and daughters Ana (1992) and Sofia (1994). In an interview with the famous Larry King in 1998, Baryshnikov stated that he did not believe in marriage.
– I am not a believer, so the exchange of vows before a priest means nothing to me. The connection of two people have nothing to do with the state, law, or the church. Either you’re with someone because you want to, or you’re not. As for me, there is no law in the world that would force me to be in a relationship with someone I don’t want to be with. The law and neither the church, can force us to love someone, nor to stop loving him – he explained.
Conservative America was not quite ready for such a free-thinking approach, but due to the status of a great artist, Baryshnikov passed without consequences. However, Larry King was additionally shocked when Misha gave him another position in the same interview, which deviated from what the stars usually say.
– I don’t think artists should have children. Our job is selfish in itself, and children have the right to their parents, who they miss, because they are constantly on tours, shows, rehearsals and travels. I admit, I missed my children, because I didn’t spend enough time with them – he said.
Time, however, changes some attitudes, so Mikhail and Lisa got married in 2006.
Although at the beginning of the nineties of the XX century, he was in the years when many ballet greats were slowly saying goodbye to dancing, Baryshnikov did not hesitate.
– People mistakenly think that in ballet the most important thing is how high you can raise your leg. That is not entirely true. Ballet is so layered and complicated that it is just one of a series of elements that make it beautiful – he explained.
Unfortunately, his plans were thwarted in 1991 by a severe knee injury. Although the world’s best orthopedists tried to fix his problems, he had to face a bitter reality: after five surgeries he underwent, his ballet career had to become a thing of the past. Although he never completely reconciled with that, he stopped performing the function of the artistic director of the American Ballet Theater, which ended a specific era in the history of that prestigious ballet institution.
Although his knee injury greatly limited him, Baryshnikov still had no peace: the thought that ballet could disappear from his life terrified him so much that, as he admits, he would “wake up wet at night like a mouse.” With a longtime friend, the multimillionaire Howard Gilman, the owner of several paper mills, he devised a way in which he will still be able to be a part of the world ballet scene.
Unfortunately, Gilman died suddenly, but the project he dreamed of with Baryshnikov, designed on his huge estate, the White Oak plantation in Florida, did not fail. The great patron left enough to realize Barishnik’s idea, and the best dancer in the world wasted no time: in 1990, he founded, with his friend Mark Morris, the dance ensemble “White Oak Dance Project”, in memory of the man who made it possible. For a start, he hired several lesser-known American choreographers, who were soon joined by some famous names, such as Jerome Robbins, then through dancers whom he estimated to have the gift and understanding for the vision he offered them. Very quickly, the “White Oak Project” embarked on tours in America and abroad.
Baryshnikov was the artistic director, and he also performed in some plays, although many were skeptical, considering his age and knee surgery.
– It wasn’t easy. Even if I hadn’t been injured, my age requires hours and hours of mental preparation, persistent exercise and incredible willpower. But, as you can see, it was not in vain – he admitted then.
Role in the series “Sex and the City”
However, Baryshnikov could not stop time. Having put “White Oak” on solid feet, he performed less and less. Instead, he devoted himself to teaching the younger generations at the American Ballet Academy, where significantly more students apply for his classes than he can accept. And, despite the fact that his new job is far from the eyes of the curious public, his popularity is not waning. Although he stopped shining on the stages of the world’s great theaters and elicited thunderous applause from the crowded audiences, everything he left behind in the ballet had such a deep and impressive trace that the audience did not forget him. Not surprisingly, therefore, the move was made in 2003 by the producer and one of the four main actresses of the watched series “Sex and the City”, Sarah Jessica Parker.
– I thought for a long time when we could introduce him as a new character. I thought he had to be from Europe, that he was a big name or a legend. With those two, well-defined features, I could not figure out who would best meet expectations. And then one morning, while I was taking a shower, it dawned on me: Mikhail Baryshnikov! My only fear was that he would not accept such an engagement – she stated in 2005.
But he immediately accepted the offer. Alexander Petrovski, as the character he played in the nine episodes of the series was called, delighted the audience and brought the famous ballet dancer the publicity he had never dreamed of.
– People stopped me on the street, in the subway and asked if Carrie Bradshaw, played by Sarah Jessica Parker in the series, would stay with me or return to the Beast – Baryshnikov commented after the filming and added:
– The shooting experience is not exactly what people imagine. It works very hard, so it is not easy to keep up with such a pace. There were days when we only slept for a few hours, the pressure is huge. Anyway, I learned a lot from that experience.
Entering the seventh decade, Miša was increasingly the target of journalists who, almost without exception, asked him if he was satisfied with life and if he could change anything, and he usually replied that he had no time to think about it. .
– Of course, like all people, I wasted some years and I’m sorry about that today. If I could advise young people on how to arrange their own lives, and if they would listen to me, I would tell them to try at all costs to avoid idleness, tapping in place. Life goes by so fast that they will soon regret wasting time on unimportant things.
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