In honor of his 62nd birthday (which occurred last week), the British website The Arts Desk is posting a two-part series of interviews that Daily Telegraph writer Ismene Brown conducted with Mikhail Baryshnikov over the years, covering everything from his youth and Kirov training, to his defection, to his relationship with Nureyev and some of his ballerina partners (including Gelsey Kirkland).

Here is the first part. They’ve got a couple of old videos there too — do check it out!

Above photo taken from the article.

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    The quintessential icon of ballet itself, Mikhail Baryshnikov is almost always touted as the greatest in his field that there ever was. By just about everyone who has ever seen him dance. And there's a reason. A damn good one.

    When one is the best at their craft, the whole world knows their name. Even those who don't care about the craft itself.

    Boxing? Muhammad Ali. Baseball? Babe Ruth. Politics? Classical Music? Beethoven. Chess? Bobby Fischer. Politics? Abraham Lincoln.

    And yes, there is a reason.

    This is the man who specifically made me want to dance. After seeing his “Nutcracker,” I wanted to soar like that. Or at least get into that kind of shape. Yes, yes, yes, I know. I will never fly like him. Most of us on this Earth won't.

    But just to be part of something like this…

    Inspiring American boys to take ballet is probably his greatest accomplishment.
    He has a way about him that makes him actually physically dancing seem unnessicary. Boyishly cute, diminutive and strong as a bull, but as graceful as any gazelle or swan, Mikhail Baryshnikov is a household name even to non-balletomanes. Widely considered to be one of the greatest and biggest name in dance.

    Mikhail began his ballet studies in his native homeland Russia at the age of 15. Despite his advanced age, he was already quite athletic as a child – he played rugby, swimming, running and soccer.

    His mother was a ballet fan and decided to enroll Misha (his childhood nickname) and he quickly made up for lost time. The instructor teaching there was none other than the famed Alexander Pushkin who had taught famed Russian male dancer Rudolf Nureyev – who was already making a name for himself in America. Soon, tragically, his mother died. Misha was devastated and quickly threw himself into ballet head-first. He made friends at the school like Alexander Godunov (whom he called Sascha) and “ballerina assoluta” Natalya Makarova.

    Misha joined the Kirov Ballet of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and his technique and balletic abilities were so great, he skipped the corps and was immediately put in a soloist position.

    While Misha was doing quite well in Russia, even finding an audience fan-base, the government and dance seemed to be too limiting and frustrating for him. Like many other Russian dancers before him and after him, he would soon defect.

    When the Kirov was touring in Canada, Misha defected and then quickly became a member of the National Ballet of Canada. He joined the American Ballet Theatre later on and became one of theatre's most prized members. He and celebrated ballerina Gelsey Kirkland (of New York City Ballet – whom he met when touring in Russia and asked her to partner him) had a celebrated and legendary partnership. Gelsey even had left NYCB to dance with him.

    Kirkland claimed she had seen him dance in person at the Kirov Ballet before he had defected. When she first saw him, his 5' 7″ inch frame and adolescent personality and appearance seemed disappointing and disillusioning. But then he leapt onto the floor and she was blown away. He danced “like a literal moving picture”. His grace, his lightness, his movement, his leaps… she made a judgment right there and then. “He was the greatest male dancer on the earth.”

    She fell in love with him then and there. Or rather, his dancing. They had a legendary partnership together – almost two peas in the same pod, they were. They danced almost every piece together. But their most favorite work together is Baryshnikov's version of Tchaikovsky's ballet “The Nutcracker” which was filmed in Canada and was televised, first by CBS, then later by PBS every year. It is believed to be the one of the best interpretations of the ballet ever made.

    Later that year, he also made his debut as a movie star with the film The Turning Point (1977). He played a tailor-made role as “Yuri”, a ballet defector from Russia who's a superstar and beds with more ballerinas then he dances with. The movie was nominated for 11 Oscars, including one for Misha.

    Gelsey was also slated to co-star, but she wanted “no part of Hollywood”. The relationship between the Russian defector and American ballerina seemed based on their own relationship. She hated the character, the script by Arthur Laurents (which she called “a soap opera”). She claimed the movie had “nothing to do with either the art or the reality of ballet”. She made herself very sick so she had an excuse to bow out. She was quickly replaced with Leslie Browne , another fresh ballerina out of ABT.

    Kirkland was as much a great ballerina as she was a disturbed person. She was extremely difficult. She became possessive and violent. She idolized Misha and held him up on a pedestal. She obsessed over every detail. He tried to please her but there was just no doing it. Eventually, they broke up.

    Misha had idolized George Balanchine, the great choreographer and ballet master of the early 20th century. Balanchine (or Mr. B) as he liked to be called, was an innovator of modern ballet. The steps, the look, the tone, the feel to it all. He had turned ballet into something between an art, an Olympic sport and an acrobatic endeavor. Misha idolized him and what he did and left the ABT briefly for the chance to work under him and learn his choreography.

    Misha stayed there for a few years and learned under Balanchine's wing. Balanchine disliked Russian dance defectors like Makarova, Nureyev, Godunov and Misha because they seemed to “jeopardize his Russian monopoly on American ballet”. While Balanchine dismissed such dancers Makarova and Nureyev (despite choreographing for them himself), he had to admit: “Misha is a great dancer. He has good feet.”

    Misha danced “The Prodigal Son” with NYCB under Balanchine's dictation (as well as many other pieces) and continued with NYCB until Balanchine's eventual death. After the timely passing, NYCB Balanchine disciple Peter Martins took over at the helm and Misha returned to ABT.

    He was put at the position of Artistic Director (as well as back to principal dancer). Along with Charles France, a man who has done as much for ballet as humanly possible without actually dancing it, it was a new era for ABT.

    Tragically, Misha (like Makarova) suffered a knee injury and eventually had to quit ballet.

    Eventually, he stepped down and co-founded the White Oak Dance Project with many other dancers. Many in their 40s and 50s – all run under no director, but as a democracy. Baryshnikov says that he is in great physical condition, but one day he will step down from dancing completely.

    But let us all pray… he will never give up the ballet… may he die with his toe shoes on..

    –With Greatest Respect for the Great Russkie, Dane Youssef

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