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Mikhail Baryshnikov
1948 -

Mikhail Baryshnikov 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 Theatre 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 travelled 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 Theatre 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 Theatre.

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."


Baryshnikov, Mikhail (b Riga, 27 Jan. 1948). Latvian-born Soviet-US dancer, choreographer and ballet director. One of the greatest stars of 20th-century dance. He studied at the Leningrad Ballet School (the Vaganova) with Pushkin and joined the Kirov in 1967, where he quickly became one of its leading artists. Jacobson created the solo Vestris (1969) to showcase his brilliance, and he created the title role in Sergeyev's Hamlet (1970) and Adam in Kasatkina and Vasiliov's Creation of the World (1971). In 1974, while on tour in Canada with a troupe of Soviet dancers, he defected in Toronto, following the example of his famous Kirov predecessors Nureyev and Makarova. He danced with many companies in the West, including the Royal Ballet and Paris Opera Ballet, but he was most closely associated with American Ballet Theatre (1974-8, 1980-9), where his partnership with Gelsey Kirkland in the classics was a notable success. In addition to performing the classical repertoire, he also sought out the challenges of modern choreography: he worked with the Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, and Martha Graham companies, among others. He enjoyed enormous success with Twyla Tharp's crossover ballet Push Comes to Shove (1976), which became his signature piece. He joined New York City Ballet in 1978 for a season in order to work with Balanchine, although Balanchine was not able to create anything new for Baryshnikov. While at NYCB he created roles in two new Robbins ballets, The Seasons and Opus 19. In 1980 he returned to ABT as principal dancer and artistic director, where he remained until 1989. His directorship met with mixed success; his stagings included Giselle (1980), Cinderella (1983), and Swan Lake (1988), the last two of which were quickly withdrawn from the repertoire. As a classical dancer, he was possessed of a superlative and pure technique, an extraordinary musicality and an uncanny ability to inhabit the characters he portrayed on stage. He was also remarkably versatile, excelling equally well at noble princes and light-hearted rogues.

Following his retirement from classical ballet, he joined forces with the choreographer Mark Morris to found the White Oak Dance Project in 1990, using his celebrity and the undiminished splendour of his dancing to bring modern dance to new audiences around the world. For White Oak he has commissioned new works from Taylor, Tharp, Lubovitch, and Robbins, among others, while reviving works by Holm, Graham, Limón, and Cunningham; he also oversaw the revivals of key works from Judson Dance Theatre.

The list of his created roles includes Neumeier's Hamlet: Connotations (1976), Ailey's Pas de Duke (1976), Petit's Dame de pique (1978), Robbins's Other Dances (1976), and Opus 19 (1979), Ashton's Rhapsody (1980), MacMillan's The Wild Boy (1981), Tharp's Push Comes to Shove (1976), The Little Ballet (also called Once Upon a Time, 1983), and Sinatra Suite (1984), Armitage's The Mollino Room (1986), and Mark Morris's Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes (1988) and Wonderland (1989). He starred in several films, including The Turning Point (1977), White Nights (1985), Dancers (1987), and The Cabinet of Dr Ramirez (1991). He made his Broadway stage debut in 1989 in Metamorphosis, a play by Steven Berkoff based on Franz Kafka. He has appeared frequently on television in America, featuring in the programmes Baryshnikov at the White House, Baryshnikov on Broadway, and Baryshnikov in Hollywood. He made his debut as a choreographer with Nutcracker (American Ballet Theatre, 1976) and followed that up with a new production of Don Quixote (ABT, 1978). Gold Medals at Varna, 1966, and Moscow, 1969. Nijinsky Prize, Paris, 1969. Emmy Award, 1979; Best Actor Award, Outer-Circle Drama Critics, 1989.









This web page was last updated on: 18 December, 2008