(by Dane Youssef)
Boyishly cute, diminutive and strong as a bull, but as graceful as any gazelle or swan, Mikhail Baryshnikov is a household name even to non-balletomanes. Widely considered to be one of the greatest and biggest names in dance.
Mikhail began his ballet studies in his native Riga, Latvia. He was accepted by the Leningrad Choreographic School, the associate school of the Kirov Ballet. One of his instructors there was Alexander Pushkin, who had taught Rudolf Nureyev - who defected in Paris and was already making a name for himself in America. Among Baryshnikov's friends at the school were Alexander Godunov (nicknamed Sasha) and "ballerina assoluta" Natalia Makarova.
Misha joined the Kirov Ballet of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and his technique and balletic abilities were so great, he skipped the corps and was immediately put in a soloist position.
While Misha was doing quite well in Russia, even finding an audience fanbase, the government and dance seemed to be too limiting and frustrating for him. Like other Russian dancers before him and after him, he would soon defect.
When the Kirov was touring in Canada, Misha defected and then quickly became a member of the National Ballet of Canada. He joined the American Ballet Theatre later on and became one of the company's principal dancers. He and Gelsey Kirkland (of New York City Ballet - whom he met in Russia and asked to partner him) - had a celebrated and legendary partnership. Gelsey had left NYCB to dance with him.
Kirkland claimed she saw him dance with the Kirov Ballet before he defected. When she first saw him, his 5' 7"-inch frame and adolescent personality and appearance seemed disappointing and disillusioning. But then he leaped onto the floor and she was blown away. He danced "like a literal moving picture". His grace, his lightness, his movement, his leaps ... she made a judgment there and then. "He was the greatest male dancer on the earth."
She fell in love with him - or rather, his dancing. They had a legendary partnership, almost two peas in a pod they were. They danced frequently together. But perhaps their most well-known work was Baryshnikov's version of Tchaikovsky's ballet "The Nutcracker," which was filmed in Canada and televised, first by CBS, then later by PBS annually for years.
Later that year, he also made his film debut in "The Turning Point" (1977)_. He played a tailor-made role as Yuri, a superstar ballet defector from Russia who beds more ballerinas than he dances with. The movie was nominated for 11 Oscars, including one for Misha.
Gelsey was also slated to co-star, but she wanted "no part of Hollywood." The relationship between the Russian defector and the young American ballerina seemed based on their relationship. She hated the character and the script by Arthur Laurents (which she called "a soap opera"). She claimed the movie had "nothing to do with either the art or the reality of ballet". She made herself very sick so she had an excuse to bow out. She was replaced by Leslie Browne, another ABT dancer.
Kirkland was as much a great ballerina as she was a disturbed person. She was extremely difficult. She became possessive. She idolized Misha and obsessed over every detail. Eventually they broke up.
Misha had idolized George Balanchine, the great choreographer and ballet master of the early 20th century. Balanchine was an innovator of modern ballet. He had turned ballet into a combination of art, Olympic sport and acrobatic endeavor. Misha, who idolized him and what he did, left ABT briefly for the chance to work under him and learn his choreography.
Balanchine thought most Russian dance defectors were prima donnas; he preferred the choreography to be the star attraction. Of Misha, Balanchine said: "He is a very good dancer. He has good feet."
Misha danced "Prodigal Son" and numerous other ballets at NYCB under Balanchine's direction and continued with NYCB for a year and a half, until he was offered the position of Artistic Director at ABT. He also briefly resumed the role of principal dancer. Misha quit ballet because of injuries. Later, he co-founded the White Oak Dance Project.
(by Dane Youssef)