Who Is Mikhail Baryshnikov?
An experienced and respected ballet dancer in the Soviet Union during the 1960s, Mikhail Baryshnikov was a beloved part of his nation. Unfortunately, the feelings weren't mutual at the time. He defected from the Soviet Union to Canada in 1974 before moving to the United States in hopes of having a better opportunity to express himself creatively. His technique transcended any cultural barriers he experienced through immigrating, as Americans loved his precision and grace as a ballet dancer just as the Soviets did. Baryshnikov worked with the American Ballet Theatre until 1978 before becoming its artistic director in the '80s.
Early Life and Career
Born in Riga, Latvia, on January 27, 1948, Mikhail Nikolaevich Baryshnikov went on to become one of the leading dancers of the 20th century. Baryshnikov's early years were difficult. His father was a Soviet colonel, and the two didn't get along. As he explained to The New York Times, his father "was not a very pleasant man." However, Baryshnikov later drew inspiration from his father. "His mannerisms, his military habits, I put them in my interpretation," the dancer once said.
In his early teens, Baryshnikov lost his mother to suicide. He began studying ballet around this same time, and in 1963, at the age of 16, began training with distinguished choreographer Alexander Pushkin at the Vaganova Choreographic Institute.
In 1967, Baryshnikov made his stage debut with the Kirov Ballet in Giselle, later starring as the dance company's premier danseur noble in Gorianka (1968) and Vestris (1969). Choreographer Leonid Jakobson is said to have tailored Vestris to suit Baryshnikov specifically. The work is now considered to be one of the dancer's signature pieces. Baryshnikov landed his first major honor in 1966, winning a gold medal at the Varna, Bulgaria, dance competition, and went on to win another gold medal at the First International Ballet Competition in Moscow in 1969.
Dazzling audiences with his astounding physical and technical skills as well as his emotional expressiveness, Baryshnikov's fame quickly grew. By the late 1960s, he was one of the Soviet Union's leading ballet dancers.
Despite his fame, Baryshnikov soon grew tired of the stifling atmosphere in communist Russia, and in 1974—following a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet in Toronto—defected from the Soviet Union to Canada in search of greater personal and creative freedom. He later explained his departure from his native country to the New Statesman, saying, "I am individualist and there it is a crime."
In the United States, Baryshnikov joined the American Ballet Theatre, where he appeared in numerous productions. Audiences turned out in droves to see "his flawless, seemingly effortless classical technique and the extraordinary airborne maneuvers he executed with such zest and precision," as Laura Shapiro wrote in Newsweek.
Outside of ballet, Baryshnikov explored other professional opportunities. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his acting in the dance world drama The Turning Point (1977), starring Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine, which ignited popular interest in ballet.
Baryshnikov left the ABT for the New York City Ballet in 1978. There, he had a chance to work with such leading choreographers as George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. Around this same time, in 1979 and 1980, Baryshnikov won two Emmy Awards for television dance specials. His time with the NYCB proved to be short, however. Baryshnikov returned to the ABT as artistic director and a principal dancer in 1980.
Continuing to explore other forms of expression, Baryshnikov starred opposite Gregory Hines in the 1985 dancing drama White Nights. He also appeared in the 1989 production of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis. In addition to performing on stage and in film, Baryshnikov started his own perfume line, called Misha (his nickname).
In 1990, Baryshnikov left the ABT to create the avant-garde White Oak Dance Project with Mark Morris—a move reflecting a shift toward contemporary dance. "It's less mannered, more democratic, more transparent and, from my point of view, closer to the hearts of people," Baryshnikov told the New Statesman. Through this new company, he worked and supported new pieces created by the likes of Twyla Tharp, Jerome Robbins and Mark Morris.
In December 2000, Baryshnikov was recognized, along with other cultural luminaries, for a lifetime of extraordinary achievement at the Kennedy Center Honor Awards.
In 2002, Baryshnikov disbanded the White Oak Project to focus on his next big project. Through his foundation, he opened the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City in 2004. This facility was created as "a gathering place for artists from all disciplines," according to its website. It houses a theater and a performance space as well as studios and offices to use for different creative endeavors.
While he spent a lot of time working behind the scenes on BAC, Baryshnikov never stepped away from performing. He made a memorable guest appearance in the TV comedy Sex and the City as a Russian artist and the love interest of Sarah Jessica Parker from 2003 to 2004. Despite knee troubles, Baryshnikov continued to dance into his 50s and 60s.
Baryshnikov put aside his dancing shoes for some of his most recent projects, however. He starred in the play In Paris in 2011 and 2012, which is based on a story by Ivan Bunin. The following year, Baryshnikov starred in an experimental theater production called Man in a Case in Hartford, Connecticut.
Mikhail Baryshnikov is married to former ABT ballerina Lisa Rinehart. The couple has three children together: Peter, Anna and Sofia-Luisa. Baryshnikov has a fourth child, a daughter named Alexandra (born in 1981), from his previous relationship with actress Jessica Lange. Baryshnikov has also been romantically linked to dancer Gelsey Kirkland, who he worked with at both the New York City Ballet and the ABT.
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