What does movement look like at a standstill? This question leapt to mind as Russian-American dancer, actor, choreographer, and photographer Mikhail Baryshnikov raced down the corridor of the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York's Hell's Kitchen neighbourhood. Even just riding in the elevator of this multidisciplinary art hub and performance space, one senses that important artistic business is going on: Choreography rehearsed, dreams realized, impossibilities achieved. Small, statuesque and full of energy, Baryshnikov himself personifies this constant creative propulsion.
"I'm at a crossroads," laughed the 61-year-old with an icon's dignity and a child's glee while gearing up for the release of his latest work as a photographer, Merce My Way. "But I'm pretty much always in that state."
Over the past two years Baryshnikov used a digital camera to shoot dress rehearsals of master American dance choreographer Merce Cunningham's work. The result of his voyeuristic endeavour are photographs of surreal, cinematic quality: blurred ribbons of colour and ghostlike smears of dancers in flight. Like their kinetic creator, Baryshnikov's still photographs appear to be in perpetual motion. A 128-page book of 85 of these images, which showed last year at New York's 401 Projects gallery, is out this month.
"I asked Merce because I thought his choreography is the perfect subject for a lens," said Baryshnikov, swiveling on a chair in his small, windowless office. "I worked with him, I danced with him, I'm a big fan."
When Baryshnikov began experimenting with digital action photography four years ago, he had been taking 35-millimetre pictures for almost a quarter century. Black-and-white portraits and landscapes from his travels line the walls of the Center, but he had never photographed dance, assuming the results would be "boring and unnecessary." Then, something changed. Inspired by dance photography books from the 1940s and 1950s, Baryshnikov realized he might evoke in a still photograph the energy of movement. His first such exhibit was Dominican Moves, a collection of social dance images shot in Dominican Republic dance halls, outdoor cafés and strip joints.
"Dominicans dance everywhere," he chuckled, pulling up photos on his computer screen. "They dance in gas stations, on the beach, while they are working..." Riveted by the palette of images, he pointed out a shot of a middle-aged couple swaying like teenage sweethearts on a terrace that resembled, in his words, a Pedro Almodovar set. "Look at this," he murmured. "They are beautiful, ah?" As locals invited him into their world, he came to understand that Dominicans' relationship to movement is like a language.
"They are great people, beautifully careless and very demonstrative. They really listen [to]their own heart, and they're very proud of that manifestation. And we are such hypocrites, Anglo-Saxons and Slavics. We are very much internal and depressed people, and very restrained."
Though he lives in New York, the man Time magazine called the world's "greatest living dancer" feels at home in a culture where sashaying hips are as common as handshakes. This warmth, he explains, is why he keeps a summer house on the Caribbean island, where he, his wife, dancer Lisa Rinehart, and four children spend much of their time. His oldest child, 27, is from a past relationship with Jessica Lange.
Born in the Soviet Union, Baryshnikov started studying ballet when he was 9. He was a principal dancer in Leningrad's Kirov Ballet before defecting to Canada in 1974, soon moving to the United States, where he joined the American Ballet Theatre and became a household name. Over the years, he's served as artistic director of influential dance companies (including ABT) and founded others, performing more than 100 works - both classic and avant-garde. An important innovator, he challenges not only the limits of the human body, but of art itself.
He acts, too, appearing in Sex and the City as moody Russian lothario Aleksandr Petrovsky, and in meatier parts like his Oscar-nominated performance in The Turning Point (1977) and Tony-nominated Broadway role in Metamorphosis (1989). Two years ago, he performed the notoriously challenging work of Samuel Beckett in the New York Theatre Workshop's Beckett Shorts.
"He gives instructions what to do but rarely on how to do it," said Baryshnikov in praise of the late Irish playwright. "If you're stupid enough to go on stage you should be smart and strong enough to make these internal decisions."
While he doesn't travel as much as he used to, preferring to be home with his family, there are summer gigs in Europe to dance, new shows to produce, and of course, his work at the Center. "God, my plate is full," he said. (According to the Huffington Post, late this spring he and celebrated dancer Ana Laguna will do a world tour of new material choreographed by a trio of talents, including ABT's Artist in Residence, former Bolshoi Ballet director Alexei Ratmansky.)
As he hopped between thoughts at light speed, his intense focus on each one felt like a glimpse into the realm of inspiration, where ideas live before acquiring shape or velocity. In that quietly infinite world, where Baryshnikov seems to relax, everything really is possible - though perhaps not all at the same time.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Mikhail Baryshnikov will sign copies of Merce My Way at the Barnes and Noble bookstore in New York's Lincoln Triangle tomorrow at 7:30 p.m.