Russia’s Geniuses That (Re)Shaped America: Part 2. Mikhail Baryshnikov

Click here to read the introduction to the Russia’s Geniuses That (Re)Shaped America series.

Part 2. Mikhail Baryshnikov

Playing Carrie Bradshaw’s eccentric love interest in the “Sex and the City” series, which made him a household name for the iPod Generation, was the umpteenth reincarnation of the cultural phenomenon that is Mikhail Baryshnikov.

He is a rarity in the artistic world. Fame makes him nervous. There is a photograph showing a fourteen year-old Misha dancing his first solo tarantella. Even in this early picture, one can see an odd grace, a type of bliss on the face of a boy who already knew that his calling, the dance, was both suffering and happiness. He had made his choice without hesitation: “I had classical dance in my blood. All the rest simply fell into it.” Baryshnikov is known for humility.

Baryshnikov grew up in Riga, now the capital of Latvia. Being shy and introverted, he struggled at school. Life at home was not easy either. His father, a career military man, was a staunch Stalinist, prone to mood swings and unpredictable behavior. His mother took her son to every theater performance possible as a means to escape this environment. When Misha was accepted into a drama and opera school at the age of twelve, she was quite proud of him.

However, in a tragic turn of events a year later she took her own life. The ballet practice became Baryshnikov’s refuge and he quickly excelled. “All the time, I wanted to look where Misha was standing,” recalled one of his teachers. “His face and posture separated him from the rest, as if he were a colorful flower on a barren field.” Baryshnikov trained incessantly, practicing gymnastics, constantly stretching, always perfecting his moves, running in the park to build lung capacity and so on. Many saw a future acrobatics champion in the young handsome man.

Already a rising ballet star in the USSR, Baryshnikov made a controversial decision to seek asylum in the West during a 1973 tour of Canada. Before he officially fled, he still took the stage: “It would have been unfair to aggrieve the public by not having performed the show.” Two days later, he was already dancing in Toronto. Soon he created the critically acclaimed blockbuster Baryshnikov on Broadway show. Meanwhile, such films as The Turning Point and the autobiographical White Knights made him a world-class celebrity. Recalling that period, the dancer said he was moved to emigrate primarily out of a desire for self-realization as an artist. Cultivating his gift by hard work paid off beyond anything young Misha had ever dreamed off.

In 1978, Baryshnikov started dancing at the New York City Ballet with the late legendary choreographer George Balanchine (himself an émigré from the post-revolutionary Russia). “He’s got good legs,” Balanchine famously quipped when asked about one of the best dancers in the world. Two years later, Baryshnikov was invited to work as the artistic director of the American Ballet Theater. He was 32 years old, still learning English, and without any administrative experience. Yet he believed that ABT could become the best company in the world. He asked Balanchine’s advice. The answer was, “definitely yes but only if you can handle this crew”.

It proved to be no easy task. At the time, the theater was in debt and depended on touring stars for income. Baryshnikov announced that he would not sign contracts with celebrities instead trying to interest the public in previously unknown dancers. His gamble paid off and the attendance at the theater gradually increased. He put on several ballets to almost universal approval. His Nutcracker has been televised annually in the US since its original production and remains one of the longest running and most successful dance performances on television. His Cinderella received negative reviews but was popular enough to allow ABT to pay off its debts. At 41 Baryshnikov had to undergo a knee operation and came to the conclusion that working as the director of ABT had depleted him. He promptly resigned.

At the end of the 1970s celebrity gossip circuit was fueled by the high profile romance of the Russian daredevil dancer and Hollywood’s new movie-star Jessica Lange. They were young, attractive, and full of ambition. “We were busy with our careers and forgot about everything else. But now, I understand that our daughter Aleksandra is the most important thing,” recalls the artist. He and Lange remain friends. Baryshnikov’s relationship with Liza Minnelli has been scrutinized as well. He has always been a fan of her creativity, stage presence and style. The Cabaret star in turn called him “a lovely, charming genius, a person of striking beauty”. When it came to casting the role of an artist lover for the Carrie Bradshaw character in the HBO hit series “Sex and the City” Mikhail Baryshnikov was an immediate natural candidate given his own history of life in the spotlight. His phenomenal career spans four decades and includes Academy Award and Emmy nominations as well as National Medal of the Arts among its numerous highlights. In 2005 he launched the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City and continues to be an active participant in the international arts scene.


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