Mikhail Nikolaevich Baryshnikov (Russian: Михаи́л Никола́евич Бары́шников, (born January 27, 1948), nicknamed “Misha”, is a Russian American dancer, choreographer, and actor, often cited alongside Vaslav Nijinsky and Rudolf Nureyev as one of the greatest ballet dancers in history. After a promising start in the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad, he defected to Canada in 1974 for more opportunities in western dance. After freelancing with many companies, he joined the New York City Ballet as a principal dancer to learn George Balanchine’s style of movement. He then danced with the American Ballet Theatre, where he later became artistic director.
Baryshnikov has spearheaded many of his own artistic projects and has been associated in particular with promoting modern dance, premiering dozens of new works, including many of his own. His success as a dramatic actor on stage, cinema and television has helped him become probably the most widely recognized contemporary ballet dancer. In 1977, he received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and a Golden Globe nomination for his work as “Yuri Kopeikine” in the film The Turning Point.
Born to Russian parents in Riga, then part of the Soviet Union, Baryshnikov began his ballet studies there in 1960. In 1964, he entered the Vaganova School, in what was then Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). His parents were Alexandra (a dressmaker; maiden name, Kisselov) and Nicholai Baryshnikov (an engineer). Baryshnikov soon won the top prize in the junior division of the Varna International Ballet Competition. He joined the Kirov Ballet and Mariinsky Theater in 1967, dancing the “Peasant” pas de deux in Giselle.
Recognizing Baryshnikov’s talent, in particular the strength of his stage presence and purity of his classical technique, several Soviet choreographers, including Oleg Vinogradov, Konstantin Sergeyev, Igor Tchernichov, and Leonid Jakobson, choreographed ballets for him. Baryshnikov made signature roles of Jakobson’s 1969 virtuosic Vestris along with an intensely emotional Albrecht in Giselle. While still in the Soviet Union, he was called by New York Times critic Clive Barnes “the most perfect dancer I have ever seen.”
On June 29, 1974, while on tour in Canada with the Bolshoi Ballet, Baryshnikov defected, requesting political asylum in Toronto, and joined the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. He also announced to the dance world he would not go back to the U.S.S.R. He later stated that Christina Berlin, an American friend of his, helped engineer his defection during his 1970 tour of London. His first televised performance after coming out of temporary seclusion in Canada was with the National Ballet of Canada in La Sylphide. He then went on to the United States.
From 1974 to 1978, he was principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), where he partnered with Gelsey Kirkland. He also worked with the New York City Ballet, with George Balanchine and as a regular guest artist with the Royal Ballet. He also toured with ballet and modern dance companies around the world for fifteen months. Several roles were created for him, including roles Opus 19: The Dreamer (1979), by Jerome Robbins, Rhapsody (1980), by Frederick Ashton, and Other Dances with Natalia Makarova by Jerome Robbins.
He returned to ABT in 1980 as dancer and artistic director, a position he held for a decade. On July 3, 1986, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States. From 1990 to 2002, Baryshnikov was artistic director of the White Oak Dance Project, a touring company he co-founded with Mark Morris. In 2003, he won the Prix Benois de la Danse for lifetime achievement. In 2005 he launched the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York.
Baryshnikov’s talent was obvious from his youth, but the Soviet system in which he grew up was ill-suited for developing it. Shorter than most dancers, he could not tower over a ballerina en pointe and was therefore relegated to secondary parts. More frustrating to him, the Soviet dance world hewed closely to 19th-century traditions and deliberately shunned the creative choreographers of the West, whose work Baryshnikov glimpsed in occasional tours and films. His main goal in leaving the Soviet Union was to work with these innovators; in the first two years after his defection, he danced for no fewer than 13 different choreographers, including Jerome Robbins, Glen Tetley, Alvin Ailey, and Twyla Tharp. “It doesn’t matter if every ballet is a success or not,” he told New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff in 1976, “The new experience gives me a lot.” He cited his fascination with the ways Ailey mixed classical and modern technique and his initial discomfort when Tharp insisted he incorporate eccentric personal gestures in the dance.
In 1978, he abandoned his freelance career to spend 18 months as a principal of the New York City Ballet, run by the legendary George Balanchine. “Mr. B,” as he was known, rarely welcomed guest artists and had refused to work with both Nureyev and Makarova; Baryshnikov’s decision to devote his full attentions to the New York company stunned the dance world. Balanchine never created a new work for Baryshnikov, though he did coach the young dancer in his distinctive style, and Baryshnikov triumphed in such signature roles as Apollo, Prodigal Son, and Rubies. Robbins did, however, create Opus 19: The Dreamer for Baryshnikov and NYCB favorite Patricia McBride. In 1980, he became Artistic Director of American Ballet Theatre and his role changed from performer to director.
Nevertheless, his fascination with the new has stood him in good stead. As he observed, “It doesn’t matter how high you lift your leg. The technique is about transparency, simplicity and making an earnest attempt.” The White Oak Project was formed to create original work for older dancers. In a run ending just short of his 60th birthday in 2007, he appeared in a production of four short plays by Samuel Beckett staged by avant-garde director JoAnne Akalaitis.
He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1999. In 2000, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. He has received three Honorary Degrees: on May 11, 2006, from New York University; on September 28, 2007, from Shenandoah Conservatory of Shenandoah University; and on May 23, 2008, from Montclair State University.
For the duration of the 2006 Summer, he went on tour with Hell’s Kitchen Dance, which was sponsored by the Baryshnikov Arts Center. Featuring works by Baryshnikov Arts Center residents Azsure Barton and Benjamin Millepied, the company toured the United States and Spain.
In late August 2007 Baryshnikov performed Mats Ek’s Place (original Swedish title, Ställe) with Ana Laguna at Dansens Hus in Stockholm. He has been quoted as saying “dancing is living”
watch young Barysznikow : here