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The Globe’s Ian Brown, right, with Mikhail Baryshnikov. (The Banff Centre 2013)
The Globe’s Ian Brown, right, with Mikhail Baryshnikov. (The Banff Centre 2013)

Interview with Baryshnikov is a tricky pas de deux Add to ...

But I (henceforth I.B.) was the Banff Centre Globe and Mail Canada Correspondent, and he had been offered $100,000 to talk in public with me by Heather Edwards and her Calgary investor and business-guru husband, Murray, who generously sponsor the Legendary Leaders series (and a lot else) at the Banff Centre. (The watery Mr. Stone got $50,000 for his performance.)

The conversation did not begin auspiciously.

I.B. I’d like to start with a question that I have heard you don’t like talking about.

M.B. They are all, actually, in that category.

I.B. I’ve heard that. When did you first realize how hugely the legend of the “great male dancer” loomed, and did you like it?

M.B. Seriously, I’ve never, ever, in any age of my career, been thinking seriously about those things. Because I knew kind of instinctively it will be only in one’s way, and it’s not the healthiest attitude. There is no competition in the arts.

The maestro wasn’t exactly effusive, and he spoke quietly with a surprisingly strong Russian accent (he speaks four languages), making it hard to understand him.

But everyone likes to talk about their family, right? So I went there, eagerly.

I knew M.B. had signed up for dance at 9. His father, a Soviet military colonel, didn’t approve, just as he didn’t approve much of Latvians and Jews, many of whom were among his son’s friends. His mother was much more enthusiastic, but she hanged herself when M.B. was a boy.

I.B. Can you take me back to Riga, to Latvia? … You enrolled in your first dance school on your own.

M.B. Yes. I was probably nine years old or so. I told my parents that I will go for the audition and for examination and I don’t want them to hold my hand, you know. I knew where it was and we signed the documents necessary, I passed medical examination and then I [was] accepted.

I.B. And your father did not like that.

M.B. Well, he was, you know. … He said, “Well, let him try it for a couple of years – we’ll see.” [audience laughter] My mother sort of … hugged me, kissed me.

I.B. […] Most people, I think, don’t realize that your mother took her own life.

M.B. Yes. Yeah.

I.B. I’m not trying to be difficult in this, but –

M.B. You know, I rarely revisit this, you know, memory – thank god, it was not in front of me. But all the sentiment about, you know, children losing their parents for one reason or another, it’s a very North American kind of psychology. I accept it as rules of life. And I survived, and that’s what’s the most important. I adored my mother, and I will always have extraordinary memories about her and remember her, and she opened the doors for me to appreciate arts.

I.B. Do you think that had something to do with your drive or the way you approached your life as an artist?

M.B. I don’t know why it happened, you know, and I don’t want to speculate about it, you know.

The conversation was not exactly prancing along. If M.B. no longer enjoyed talking about the ballet, what about love?

He was fortunate enough to dance with Natalia Makarova, who defected in the late 1960s. According to John Fraser in his book Private View, they also had an affair, though she was eight years older and married.

Meanwhile, M.B. maintained another four-year affair with an heiress in London, one of the people who had helped him defect.

And then there was his famously public relationship with Gelsey Kirkland, the American ballerina. But he didn’t want to talk about any of that.

I.B. I understand you were also having an affair with Makarova, the celebrated ballerina; is this –

M.B. You know, I kiss but I don’t tell, you know. [audience laughter]

I.B. There are some books out there in which people are telling.

M.B. It’s their business. They have to sell their books [audience laughter].

At this point in a conversation, a public interviewer simply wants to die; he doesn’t care if he manages to crawl offstage first. Because this is the thing about interviewing a big celebrity: You can pursue what you know to be the truth, but the audience always sides with the celebrity.

Knowing M.B. was non-loquacious, I had prepared 50 questions for an hour-long chat. We were no more than five minutes into the chat before I leaped to No. 10, about his defection.

I.B. When did you start to think that you might defect?

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