Mikhail Baryshnikov (born 1948) was a ballet dancer who defected from the former Soviet Union to the United States. He explored both classical and modern ballet forms and was artistic director of the American Ballet Theater before resigning and establishing the White Oak Dance Project.
Mikhail Baryshnikov was born in Riga, Latvia, on January 27, 1948. His dance studies began in 1960. He trained for three years at the Riga State Choreographic School until his fifteenth birthday, when he traveled to Leningrad with an advanced student group. The son of Russian parents, Baryshnikov found a congenial home in Leningrad. Motivated to audition for ballet school there, Baryshnikov passed his entrance examination and was accepted into one of Russia's finest ballet training institutions (the Vagarova School). Here he studied with one of the great teachers of this century, Alexander Pushkin. He joined the Kirov Ballet in 1967, entirely bypassing the usual years in the corps de ballet. He quickly became one of that legendary company's most brilliant soloists.
In a dramatic and adventurously romantic leap to the West, Baryshnikov defected from the former Soviet Union in June 1974. Still a member of the Kirov, he had been dancing in Toronto, Canada, with a touring troupe from Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet. Following the group's final Toronto performance, Baryshnikov leaped into a waiting car—rather than the chartered bus transporting the Russian dancers—and disappeared into the Canadian wilderness, soon to reappear to thunderous acclaim on American stages.
The successes of his early career had been marked by formal competitions and roles in modern and classical repertory. He won a gold medal at the Varna, Bulgaria, ballet competition in 1966, and in 1968 he won the gold medal at the First International Ballet Competition in Moscow. His professional debut, in the "peasant Pas de Deux" of "Giselle, " would much later be echoed in the West in his New York City debut with American Ballet Theater in August 1974. His partner was Natalia Makarova, who had defected from the Kirov in 1970.
His Western admirers, critics and fans alike, immediately compared Baryshnikov with another of Pushkin's students, Rudolf Nureyev, who had fled the former Soviet Union and the haven of the Kirov Ballet in 1961. They found the 26-year-old Baryshnikov a restrained, less ostentatious proponent of the Russian ballet style than Nureyev. His technique was praised for its ease and purity, and his elevation and ballon (the ability to appear to pause, suspended in the air during leaps) were universally acclaimed. As Baryshnikov explored the various styles of American modern dance and contemporary ballet for which he had left the comparatively constrained environment of the Kirov, his abilities seemed limitless.
During his initial three years in the West, particularly as a principal dancer with American Ballet Theater from 1974 to 1978, Baryshnikov showed a voracious appetite for all the challenges that a welcoming dance world would present to him. He learned some 22 new roles, dancing the choreography of Antony Tudor, George Balanchine, John Neumeier, Roland Petit, John Butler, and Twyla Tharp, among others.
In a move that surprised many—because it presupposed a lower salary and less than the star-status billing— Baryshnikov joined the New York City Ballet in 1978. For 15 months he challenged himself with the unfamiliar style and rhythms of George Balanchine's choreography. The next phase of his career began in September 1980 when Baryshnikov became the artistic director of the American Ballet Theater.
Having successfully explored ballet in its classical form and in its contemporary styles, as well as the work of modern dance-makers, and finding himself at the head of one of the great American ballet companies, Baryshnikov continued his search for new avenues of expression in television and motion pictures. "The Turning Point, " made in 1977, introduced him to audiences unfamiliar with his ballet work and earned him an Academy Award nomination; "White Nights" (1986) was his next screen effort.
Baryshnikov was named the artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre in 1980. During his tenure he was credited with adding numerous modern pieces to the repitore and with improving the company's fortunes both artistically and financially. In September 1989 Baryshnikov resigned as the creative director of the American Ballet Theatre due to a power struggle with the company's executive director and the board of trustees. He then co-founded the White Oak Dance Project and continued to perform.
Baryshnikov, in discussing his career, summarized his experiences in a comment he made to Gennady Smakov, author of "The Great Russian Dancers." The dancer said, "No matter what I try to do or explore, my Kirov training, my expertise, and my background call me to return to dancing after all, because that's my real vocation, and I have to serve it."
As is the case with most dancers, the most effective documentation of Mikhail Baryshnikov is the photograph. Most books focusing on him are in the category of photo albums attempting to illustrate his work through freeze-action shots.
Baryshnikov at Work, which is edited and introduced by Charles Engell France, features many photographs of the dancer by Martha Swope (1976). The same editor and photographer collaborated on Baryshnikov in Color (1980); this book also includes photographs of Baryshnikov by photographers other than Swope. Other books on this artist include: Bravo, Baryshnikov by Alan LeMond, with photos by Lois Greenfield and others (1978); Baryshnikov on Broadway, with photos by Martha Swope and an introduction by Walter Terry (1980); The Making of a Dance: Mikhail Baryshnikov and Carla Fracci in Medea/Choreography by John Butler, photographed and edited by Thomas Victor, with an introduction by Clive Barnes (1976); and Baryshnikov in Russia by Nina Alovert (1985).
Baryshnikov's post American Ballet Theatre career is detailed in "After Baryshnikov, What?" in Newsweek (January 29, 1990); also in "White Oak Dance Project: Baryshnikov Hits a New Personal Best" in Dance Magazine (March, 1994) and in "Modern Dance Junkie" in Village Voice (March 25, 1997).