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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 ...

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.

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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.

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?

M.B. That was a question of a couple of days’ decision.

I.B. A couple of days?

M.B. When I was already here in Canada.

I.B. You were in Toronto with a touring company, which is a great moment of national pride for Canadians, even though it happened in Toronto, the most hated city in Canada.

M.B. It’s just that was a very interesting moment, actually, you know, and a difficult moment because they took me to that tour with the understanding and assurance that I would behave, and I didn’t. [audience laughter]

I.B. I gather it almost doesn’t come off, because you’ve danced so well and there are so many curtain calls. …

M.B. This is kind of an investigative conversation. … [audience laughter]

I.B. But as I have read

M.B. Read the book about it! [audience laughter

I.B. Were you scared at all, of reprisals

M.B. No, I was excited. […]

I.B. When the Wall fell – Gorbachev – did you think of going back, ever?

M.B. Never.

The conversation, such as it was, went on like that for some time. Some people later said it was like watching two dogs sparring.

He wouldn’t talk about Jessica Lange, the actress with whom he had a child and a highly public breakup, and he wouldn’t talk much more about Vladimir Putin’s Russia today.

He did utter a paragraph about how exciting it was to dance in America, and how nervous it made him.

“Every day. I wake up nervous,” he said. “I do have quite a bit of thin skin about certain things. You know, we’re all afraid of failure.”

Yes, that was a concept I was having no trouble grasping.

He explained that he took on new work as a dancer and as an actor because he got restless: “I like the process … in those workshops, much more than actually performing. The longer you perform, you have more chance to improve, and yet the clock is ticking and you know that there is somewhere you have to step out from the stage for good.”

A possible scoop.

I.B. For good?

M.B. Yes. Of course. When you fail to produce adequate, interesting work, or your best friend or your wife or the public will say “Genug – enough!” And then I would like to do a new project. That’s the most … it’s like [a] new date or something.

I.B. I read somewhere that you hardly ever go to classical ballet any more.

M.B. Rarely now, you know. As I said, the clock is ticking and I want to see something [by] people who are pushing [the] envelope. To go to see another four hours of classical production, this time would never come back.

I.B. But you’re, I gather, a big fan of Mad Men.

M.B. Yes, I am. Yeah.

I.B. Who’s your favourite character?

M.B. All of them – I’m in love with these people. I wish I could be in the United States during the Fifties. Because the Fifties produced [the] Sixties, which was the most fabulous time in the United States. The Sixties produced the Judson group [famous avant-garde choreographers] and all these fabulous innovators, and they affected John Cage and Merce Cunningham and George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, Broadway and the theatre. We are right now in a bit of a slump in the arts, in my view.

I.B. Why so?

M.B. Well, because in the last 10-15 years we lost the elderly avant-garde, you know. … They were really a light tower in the ocean, you know, and we all adored, admired and learned from them as much as we could. In any art form, in Hollywood or in music, there is a handful of people who really, you know, move the envelope.

Looking back, I see that this is when the conversation veered toward the original. It’s a difficult moment to find in any public conversation, even an easier one, and in my experience impossible to predict.

In desperation, I’d abandoned my index cards and thus all my careful arranging of the interview into three acts.

M.B., meanwhile, stopped trying to control where the conversation was and wasn’t going. Maybe that early, unanswered question about his mother’s death prepared the way for his later vulnerability, or maybe it delayed it – who knows?

In any case, he stopped talking about what he had done and began to talk about what he felt, about what moved him – not his achievements, but what he had lost.

This is what always makes a conversation real, whether it is with your sister or someone you just met: when both sides risk something.

(The sports reporter’s question – “How did you feel out there?” – seldom works, because the interviewer has nothing at stake.)

I decided to press my luck, and ask him about his 65-year-old body. He could easily have made fun of that. Instead, he told me everything hurt.

I.B. How many operations?

M.B. A few – 10 or something.

I.B. Ten, all in the knee?

M.B. Yeah, knees, bunions, this and that, shoulder, you know, ankle. No, but luckily I had a really extraordinary group of doctors taking care of me, and I survived.

He felt the decline of his body. “I mean, mortality in general, of course, there is, you know. … I think of it all the time.”

I.B. You think about it all the time?

M.B. Yeah. Pretty much every day. You know, I’m saying, “I’m alive!” Which means I’m speaking about mortality. But one day I [will] wake up and I [won’t be] there. Then what to do? It’s very Woody Allen, yes.

I.B. Woody Allen said, “I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

M.B. No, I mean, I love to perform; and I’ll perform as long as I, in my view, do something meaningful onstage – you know, whatever it is: walking, saying something, moving something, moving myself, talking to myself! [audience laughter] Then people [will] start to notice... ! [audience laughter]

Because he chose to be vulnerable, I could return the favour, and ask the question I most wanted to ask, but was most nervous about – why it is that dance, modern and classical alike, moves people (and me, especially) to tears.

M.B. Martha Graham used to love to say, “The body cannot lie.” The body cannot lie. You cannot be somebody else onstage, no matter how good of an actor or dancer or singer you are.

When you open your arms, move your finger, the audience knows who you are, you know. And when the dancers move, together or individually, in a beautiful piece of choreography, and with gorgeous light and very arresting and evocative music, revealing themselves, it is such a privilege to be in the audience. At that point, I would like to be [in the] audience; I don’t want to be onstage.

And then [mockingly] you can cry, you know, if you want to.

I.B. Don’t say it like that! [audience laughter]

M.B. Some people cry, some people don’t, you know. Sometimes I do, too. Like when I see film of myself at age 8, you know, dancing – “Who is this child?” [audience laughter] Children are vile. [audience laughter]

By now I had churned through to my very last question. I looked at my watch: we had been talking for 55 minutes, somehow.

I.B. Someone said to me there could never have been anyone else like you on the dance scene because you were a unique talent at a unique point in history.

That you became – because of the defection, because of changes in the culture, because of changes in dance – a common point around which people could rally. But the other day I was watching some young dancers here at the Centre, and I noticed that they were looking at their favourite dancers on YouTube.

It’s rarer, I think, that people get together for the collective experience of watching people move, of watching human beings reveal themselves in person. …

M.B. Well, we live in the reality of the Internet. … From one side, it is really very progressive and it’s quick and it’s very convenient. But in my view a lot of young dancers are losing their contact with their teachers. The human contact is much more important.

The only advice I can give to young dancers is to try to really trust their teachers more, and then stay with them longer, and try to understand why they are teaching this way or another way. And not just run around and try to get something.

We grew up in different times: Connecting with somebody much older and much more knowledgeable was a privilege for us.

Now, young artists get on their feet, professionally, much earlier in life. And sometimes they lose perspective on why they are doing this.

Then tragedies happen and dreams start to crumble.

So have a life besides dance. … Go to see works in the galleries, and go to music concerts, read a book.

You know, bunhead, it’s bunhead. But there should be something in that bun. It’s very important for all artists, and all dancers, to meet people not in the arts, people who are your audience. Talk to them freely; be aggressive, ask them what they mostly didn’t like about your performance. That’s a more interesting conversation than listening to the good reviews.

Just as, sometimes, you learn more when the conversation doesn’t go well.

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