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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 ...

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.)

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