The athleticism and grace of Mikhail Baryshnikov propelled him early on into the world of ballet stardom. A native of Latvia, he escaped the Iron Curtain while performing internationally in his mid-20s.
From that day on, he was adopted by the American dance world as a representation of the flight to freedom, both personal and artistic. He has transcended fame as a dancer to become an actor and noted choreographer of modern dance.
This weekend the 52-year-old will be honored at The Kennedy Center for a career that has sparkled not only with achievements in dance, but also in film, theater, choreography, and leadership for a major American ballet company.
"Misha", as he is known, trained from the age of 15 at the venerable Vaganova Academy, a feeder school for several of Russia's best ballet companies. When asked what drove him, he attributes it to his ego and being a natural competitor.
"I start to dance in the school, you know, like Russian dance, and boots, and pretty girls around..." he recalled, "and I have never a feeling like somebody will call me, 'Oh, you sissy!'...You know, we did some solos, and I said, 'Oh, I did it better than this one!'"
He became a lead dancer with Russia's Kirov Ballet by the age of 21. In June of 1974, while on tour with the company in Canada, he diverted his return to the company tour bus, heading instead to a hidden car waiting for him. He defected.
Baryshnikov became the secret weapon of American Ballet Theatre a short time later, raking in an extraordinary salary for a classical ballet dancer. "It (was) not a question of money. I came to this country really not to make money; (but to) be somebody and to spend my life in the most interesting way, in the most intriguing way."
Some time later, he made the daring move to New York City Ballet, to work with the legendary Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine, another Russian ballet defector.
For much of the 70's and 80's, Misha was feted as the biggest celebrity in American ballet. When he is asked about how he faced the constant comparison to other dance legends like Nijinsky and Nureyev, he says, "Sure it is great compliment, but it is, at the same time, nonsense. To be a good ballet dancer, it's enough, without any comparison."
In 1980, Misha became Artistic Director for American Ballet Theater, leading some to wonder whether a dancer would be able to handle the business end of such a large and important company.
During his period as the company's head, Baryshnikov branched out into film, appearing (always as a Russian ballet dancer) in The Turning Point for which he received an Oscar nomination White Night (with Gregory Hines and Isabella Rossellini), That's Dancing! and Dancers. 1987 brought him to the boards, playing a dramatic role in the play adapted from the Kafka short story Metamorphosis.
Misha may have retired from ballet some time ago, but he never really left the stage. One reason for Baryshnikov's defection years earlier was his attraction to more contemporary dance, and he knew that more traditional ballet is highly prized in Russia. In 1989, at the end of a tumultuous decade-long term as ABT's head, Misha paired with modern choreographer Mark Morris to form The White Oak Dance Project. "I felt with the classical ballet, I went through the walls, through the roofs, through the floor I've done it. You know? And somehow frustrating years of running company like American Ballet Theater - I had it all, " he says of the career move. When Wallace asked him if it was an issue of boredom with ballet, Misha responds, "It's not just I was bored. I was fulfilled."
Originally, the two men did not expect the company to be a long project. They merely saw it as an outlet for their artistic partnership. Eleven years later, the company is still going strong and tours to sold-out theaters around the world.
Misha says now that he has definitely calmed down in his later years. He enjoys a busy life, but misses his family when touring.
The dancer once had a reputation for playing as hard as he worked, and back in 1979, he admitted to loving the nightlife.
When asked in 1979 what was most important in his life, Baryshnikov remarkably said dance was not it. "No, first thing in my life, it is my own life - my friends, my books, my dogs, my bottle of wine, my music, my house, my mood. And everything else...what's (next is) my ballet, and it is my job. It's my bread and butter. It is my...my energy and, if you want, it's my talent."
Today he says he thinks of dance as his life, it has grown with him, and had so much to do with how he has expanded and identified himself as a person.
Baryshnikov points out that he feels happiest right where he is in life, a very successful choreographer and dancer, and a family man. "The next couple of years will be the most interesting in my...life as a dancer."
When asked what he considers his next move to be, he says humbly, "I really don't know. I have to get down to single digits in my golf game."