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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 ...

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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