Mikhail Baryshnikov walks into the Teatro Nuovo in Spoleto, Umbria, huddled in a green hoodie, and sits slightly hunched, slightly nervous. Outside, by appropriate coincidence, stands a statue of Jerome Robbins — an American choreographer who inspired Baryshnikov and was in turn inspired by him after his dramatic defection from Russia to the United States in 1974. Since that day, Baryshnikov has been the yardstick against which all other dancers are measured. He emerged from the Kirov (now known as the Mariinsky) as the exemplar of the classical style, a man with a technique so precise that each shape seemed perfect, and whose ease of movement gave presence to every step.
When he fled St Petersburg to become Russian ballet’s third great defector, following Nureyev and Natalia Markarova in flight from the creative strictures of the communist system, he revealed himself as something else: a pioneer whose curiosity led him to work not only with George Balanchine and Frederick Ashton, but also with contemporary choreographers such as Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris. Just as his body could never be constrained by the Russian typecasting that saw him — thanks to his height, 5-foot-5 — as the jester rather than the Prince, so his mind could never be pinioned into any accepted wisdom. His career has been marked by his remarkable, restless, intelligence. Which is, in a sense, what brings him to Spoleto where, at the age of 65, he is rehearsing what he describes as “the most complex performance I ever did in my life”.
The piece is an adaptation of “The Old Woman”, a short story by the dissident Russian writer Daniil Kharms, an early surrealist and absurdist who was arrested for treason under Stalin in 1941 and died in a psychiatric ward the following year, probably of starvation. “He definitely didn’t fit the social realism of the emerging communist state,” says Baryshnikov, acidly. The new production is being staged by the experimental American director Robert Wilson, and performed by Baryshnikov together with the actor Willem Dafoe, both of them dressed like figures from commedia dell’arte.
“It’s physical theatre. We sing, we dance, we clown,” Baryshnikov says. “It is a very strange mix of challenging and disturbing moments. Bob just cracks the whip and asks Willem and me to do things. Sometimes we work for ten hours with not much of a break.” Baryshnikov may sound as if he is moaning, but he isn’t. This is exactly what he loves. “It’s stretching yourself,” he says, eyes twinkling behind his rimless glasses. “It’s excitement. It is an empty stomach. I will sit for an hour today just to prepare make-up. An hour. That’s an hour that will never come back to you. You will age in that hour.”
He laughs a throaty, slightly ironic laugh, a sound that punctuates his conversation. He must be a dream dinner-party guest, his mind roving through politics, history, dance and culture, expressing his thoughts pithily, his still heavily-accented voice slipping into sharp and funny fragments of mimicry.
In “The Old Woman”, which will premiere at the Manchester International Festival later this month before going to Spoleto for the town’s own famous festival, he speaks Russian, the language of a country to which he has not returned since his defection. “Life is too short to get frustrated and nervous and all those things,” he says. “I’m not interested, I don’t like even to think about it.” Is he not curious to see for himself how things have changed since he left? “You can see it better from afar and you can understand it much better than when you live there.”
He was, he says, appalled to read of the acid attack in January this year on the Bolshoi’s artistic director Sergei Filin. The company’s earlier director, Alexei Ratmansky, who left the Bolshoi for New York in 2009, is a close friend. “I was elated when Ratmansky took over that company. I said something smart is happening in Russia,” says Baryshnikov. “And then I was very happy that he was out.” He laughs, more sourly this time. Ratmansky — whom he describes as “without doubt the top classical choreographer; Russia never had anybody better” — was driven away by the poisonous politics of the Bolshoi, which are also behind the attack on Filin. Baryshnikov is cautious but clear, on the subject. “I am not entitled to give my opinions because I don’t know the detail,” he says. “From one side, it’s real personal tragedy and from the other, it’s a soap opera of course, which is like everything in Russia. It’s a horrific reality and there is a non-stop ugly vaudeville.”
Since 2005, Baryshnikov has been the artistic director of the Baryshnikov Arts Centre in New York, which brings together artists of different disciplines from around the world, to experiment and to perform. He has consistently supported Russian culture, hosting productions by small Russian theatre companies, and helping students to come on exchange programmes to the US. The centre is also a hotbed of international choreographic talent, its enterprising programme shaped by Baryshnikov’s personal taste for the new, the unlikely — and the excellent.
That eye for experiment has been there from the start. “Being a classical dancer, there was a certain moment in my early 30s, when I realised if I didn’t do experimental work and just preserved my body, I could have danced ‘Giselle’ until I was probably 50 years old.” For some dancers, he says, that would have been a fulfilling life. But he chose differently. “I abused my body,” he says. “I went to certain extremes. I had 12 operations, just pushing it, being stupid a little bit, but it was interesting.”
His hunger to work with the very best in every field, to ask questions of his physique and of his mind, took his career in many directions. He has worked with virtually every great choreographer in ballet and in contemporary dance, in America and Europe. “It was curiosity. I admired their spirit and I wanted to be there, to understand what was happening. What can be more thrilling or arresting? I wanted to be in situations which were risky, of course, and I miserably failed on a few occasions, but that was the learning experience.”
One arena in which some would say he failed was in his two years from 1978 as a principal with the New York City Ballet company. Although he excelled in works such as “Apollo” and “The Prodigal Son”, critics felt he never quite mastered Balanchine’s idiosyncratic neoclassicism. Which makes it all the more surprising when he says that “New York City Ballet Company is still much more my home than American Ballet Theatre”. Since he ran ABT from 1980 to 1989 that is quite an admission. But he goes further: “I realised I cannot be a doorman in commercial theatre. This was a secure, nice job, mostly a fundraising job. If you ever have the appetite for being a performing artist, then you have to do something else. I realised that. It took me 10 years.”
An ironic smile accompanies that statement. But his tenure at ABT was followed by one of the most productive — and happiest — periods of his creative life, when he founded the White Oak Dance Project, with his friend, the choreographer Mark Morris. It was an idea that started small and lasted for 12 years. “It wasn’t a calculated decision. I just looked around. I wanted to dance with this great choreographer and have a little adventure. What could be more interesting? Plus we all made some money, we had a fabulous time travelling and it was real rock ‘n’ roll.”
Morris’s “A Wooden Tree” set to music by Ivor Cutler, which has just premiered in America, was once more based around Baryshnikov. “It started as a kind of semi-joke. I said, ‘Well, if you need some dead wood,’ and he said, ‘You know what...’” It was fabulously well received, with one critic describing Baryshnikov as “the Beethoven of the body”, bringing out new meanings as the years go by.
But what drives him to maintain the discipline of a daily routine that enables him to perform? “I want to keep my sense of connection to the audience,” he says. “Not that I am, at the age of 65, going to dance.” He semi-sings the words, and waves his hands. “That would be ridiculous, yes?”
Baryshnikov’s continued desire to perform springs from the same source it always has: his love of the act of creation. He is happier making a piece than when presenting the finished performance. “I respect process more than I actually like to perform,” he says. “When you start to perform, it starts the gipsy life. Days are not the same. You wake up in the morning and the nerves are starting. I don’t like that. I love it when I am performing but I don’t like those nerves. But at the rehearsals, I am totally at home.”
This dislike of performing is in marked contrast to Rudolf Nureyev, of whom he speaks with great affection. “Rudi went dancing on and on, he wanted to be on stage, every day, no matter what.” He remembers a moment, late in Nureyev’s dancing career, when he visited him at his hotel between two performances of “Sleeping Beauty”. “And he was in a hot bath, drinking tea, looking like that famous painting ‘The Death of Marat’. I said, ‘Rudolf, you look like a dead old woman,’ and he is laughing. He is totally exhausted. And then he got up to go to the evening performance, and do the same piece with another ballerina. That is incredible. You have to love it.”
The two men had their differences, partly because Baryshnikov did not like dancing in Nureyev’s productions of classics such as “Raymonda”. He explains: “First of all, I was a bad partner. I was not strong, I was small. I had a great time dancing with Natalia Markarova and Gelsey Kirkland — that kept me going the last few years on the classical scene — but they were partnered much better by other people. And plus, I didn’t like his choreography. It was too busy.”
Despite such differences, the two men were close. “I said when he died that he had the charisma, the earthiness of a simple man and the real arrogance of God. He was a very rare flower, a troubled and lonely soul. And at the same time he loved his life and loved being in front of the curtain.”
Baryshnikov, too, loves his life. His wife, Lisa Rinehart, with whom he has three children, came to visit him the other day. As he looked out from their balcony, across a beautiful Italian square, he recalled something that his friend the philosopher Joseph Brodsky once said to him. “He said, ‘The boy got lucky, life is not bad.’” He laughs again. He laughs too about the fact that most people under 30 will remember him not as one of the greatest dancers ever, but as Sarah Jessica Parker’s Russian lover in “Sex and the City”. “At least they remember something, though they actually don’t remember my real name. They say, oh it’s Alexander Petrovsky.”
But watching him rehearse on stage, his movements still as precise and evenly weighted as those of a man 40 years his junior, you can see how brightly his quest for artistic fulfilment burns. “Perfection is unachievable,” he says, firmly, smiling. “It’s like a golf game. But as long as there is light in the window you can just try to dream about some next step, or how to make this day better, or how to be more interesting today than yesterday. Brodsky had this favourite expression: ‘Be good.’ Be. Good. To yourself, to other people, to everything you do. It’s a norm of life by which people should try to live. Don’t waste time. Be interesting and interested.” That is exactly what Mikhail Baryshnikov has always been.
–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2013