The first thing I noticed about Mikhail Baryshnikov was his shoes – expensive brown brogues, possibly handmade over hip, horizontally striped socks, and quite large compared with his tiny, supposedly 5-foot-7 frame. They worked beautifully with his trim, gunmetal-grey suit. I should have asked about the shoes, because they were the details of his person that I actually noticed. But in front of 1,000 expectant people, interviewing the most important male dancer in a century, a guy whose name stands with Nureyev and Nijinsky, it’s hard to stay in the moment – to concentrate on what you want to ask as opposed to what you have to ask. It is part of the delicate balance when you interview people onstage.
I’ve done this sort of thing quite a bit. Artists insist they should be known by their work, not their personalities, but we the seething public long to know who they are, and how different the great ones are from you and me.
When an onstage interview goes well, it reveals a human creator you never knew was there: Margaret Atwood (hilarious, flirtatious), Antonia Fraser (funny, saddened but unbowed by the death of her husband, Harold Pinter), Martin Amis (crisply judgmental, but mellower as he ages), Nicholson Baker (endlessly thoughtful and distractable), Calvin Trillin (witty, memory still keen at 78, still in love with his late wife, Alice), to name a few.
When an onstage interview goes weirdly, it can still be revealing, but in a way beyond the interlocutor’s control (Oliver Stone, leaving the stage in front of 900 people for five minutes to pee). This one, I’d been warned repeatedly, might go badly.
By rights, the life of Mikhail Baryshnikov (henceforth M.B.) should be a perfect subject for an onstage airing. Born in 1948 to Russian parents in Riga, Latvia, he is the most famous classical danceur of our age.
In other fields, there are always at least a few stars in the same league, even if you’re as talented as Meryl Streep or Bono or Philip Roth. But by tradition there is only ever one great male ballet dancer at a time; just one can be the most athletically, physically and artistically gifted, and unfairly beautiful to boot.
M.B. began to dance with the Kirov Ballet while he was still a teenager. His animal leaps, his dervish pirouettes, his flawless technique and expressiveness – Clive Barnes of The New York Times called him the most perfect dancer he had ever seen – were already famous when, on June 29, 1974, at the age of 26, after a performance at O’Keefe Centre in Toronto, he defected from the Soviet Union.
His betrayal of the USSR electrified the world, and gave ballet new political relevance – as did his subsequent whirlwind of work in the West with choreographers George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp and a dozen others, classical and modern. In 1980, he began a decade-long tenure as artistic director of New York’s American Ballet Theatre, pushing farther and farther from imported European ballet, and closer and closer to American-born dance forms – modern, jazz, Broadway, you name it.
It has been turn after unpredictable turn ever since: He founded the modernist White Oak Dance Project and the Baryshnikov Arts Center. He has won an Oscar nomination and a Tony for his acting, as well as even vaster fame with a new generation who know him only as Aleksandr Petrovsky, Carrie Bradshaw’s older Russian boyfriend on Sex and the City. (He doesn’t get the girl, which may be the only time in his life that has happened.)
He’ll take the stage again this fall in The Old Woman with Willem Dafoe, a play adapted from the short stories of Daniil Kharms, who starved to death during the siege of Leningrad.
What he doesn’t like to do, however, is to give interviews, as Casey Prescott, the producer responsible for mounting the Banff Centre series, kept warning me.
Unlike Rudolf Nureyev, who defected in 1961, and who loved performing long after he ought to have stopped, M.B. prefers the process of creating a dance. He’s a purist; repeat performances – as onstage interviews tend to be – are his least favourite things.