Mikhail Baryshnikov: “The idea of ​​returning to this Brezhnev swamp was impossible” | Ballet

Mikhail Baryshnikov, 74is the best ballet dancer of his generation. Born in Riga, Latvia to Russian parentshe danced with Kirov Ballet before going to Canada in 1974. A dancer of small stature but with enormous hunger, versatility, technical mastery and personality, Baryshnikov made his career in the United States, performing with New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theaterwhere he later became artistic director. He oriented himself towards contemporary dance by founding the White Oak Dance Project with Mark Morrisand now execute the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York. He still performs in experimental theatre, most recently a version of Chekhovit is The cherry orchard through Ukrainian director Igor Golyak, where he shared the stage with a giant robotic arm. On screen, he appeared in films Turning and sleepless nightand in sex and the city. At November 16Baryshnikov will receive the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II of the Royal Academy of Dance award at Buckingham Palace.

Congratulations on receiving the QEII from the RAD award given for “outstanding service to the art of dance and ballet”. What did ballet give you and what do you think you could have given to ballet?
Ballet gave me my life. From the age of eight or nine, my first experiences in ballet gave me the confidence to believe that I could be part of the mysterious world of theatre. And I mean everyone, from entertainers to electricians to cleaners who come in after a show. I had a love affair with it all and still do. As for what I gave to the ballet, I gave my enthusiasm, I think. And gratitude for the opportunity to live and work in a unique and sometimes strange world.

How often do you dance now? I saw a video of you doing some moves at a time Fashion Show recently – you still have it!
You are very kind, thank you. I don’t dance much anymore and I was flattered when Anna Wintour asked me to be part of the Vogue event. It was a kiss to New York and its insane resilience.

How is your body feeling these days?
Every day is a new encounter, and they are not always pleasant.

With Lesley Collier in Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody at the Royal Opera House in 1980. Photography: GBL Wilson/Royal Academy of Dance/ArenaPAL

You’ve danced so many different choreographers and styles across classical and contemporary, and you’re still performing in theater now. What drives this hunger?
I like to artistically put myself in vulnerable positions. It’s exhilarating trying to overcome the natural insecurity and fear that comes with every new project. Chasing this unknown and finding a way to make it work keeps me focused. And happy, actually.

At the Baryshnikov Art Center you present a wide range of disciplines, but as far as I know, not much in the area of ​​ballet. Is there still vital art in the world of classical ballet?
I absolutely believe that the beauty of classical ballet remains significant, and always will be, but many ballets are creations of a certain time and place, and they don’t always translate well to modern sensibilities. There are choreographers who experiment with this, but I leave the challenge to them. Of course, if a ballet project were to be presented to BAC, it would receive the same consideration we give to all who apply for residencies and presentations. For example, we recently presented Stravinsky Reimagined, choreographer Jennifer Weber’s take on Petrushka and The Firebird. She used several ballet dancers and a bit of ballet vocabulary, but it’s mostly hip-hop dancers that drive the story forward. The piece is fresh, but also faithful to the music of Igor Stravinsky and its ballet origins.

How have you seen the world of ballet change in the decades since you arrived in North America?
Apart from the technical level of the dancers, which seems to improve with each generation, I don’t think ballet has changed much. Companies are always trying to survive, always trying to showcase their incredible talent and trying to create new works that the public will pay to see.

With Michael Clark in Nevertheless, Caviar from Solos With Piano Or Not at the Barbican, London, in 2004.
With Michael Clark in Nevertheless, Caviar from Solos With Piano Or Not at the Barbican, London, in 2004. Photography: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

In recent years, certain abuses of power within companies and ballet schools have come to light, long ignored. Do you think ballet can confront and change this culture, a culture often exacerbated by embedded hierarchies?
The artistic process can be difficult, provocative and uncomfortable. This is not a march for human rights. But everyone deserves to be treated with respect, and excellence can always be achieved without abuse.

When you left the USSR for Canada in 1974, you said it was an artistic choice rather than a political choice. Was it true?
Yes. Obviously, I was not politically engaged in Russia, but when I had the opportunity to stay in the west, the idea of ​​returning to that Brezhnev swamp was impossible. I was young, in the middle of my career and I knew that time was passing. I wanted to travel, work with different choreographers and be a free person. It was as simple as that, but once I made my choice, in the eyes of the USSR, it was an act of civil disobedience.

What did you sacrifice for the career you had in the United States?
Surprisingly, I don’t feel like I had to sacrifice anything. There were friends and mentors I loved deeply that I had to leave, but I was able to reconnect with many of them later, so I was extremely lucky.

With Emily Coates in White Oak Dance Project's Early Floating at Sadler's Wells, London, in 2002.
With Emily Coates in White Oak Dance Project’s Early Floating at Sadler’s Wells, London, in 2002. Photography: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

You made your feelings clear about Russia’s current policy and that prominent Russians should speak out against the war [in Ukraine]. Do you think enough people are doing it, and does it make a difference?
It will never be enough until the end of the current Russian regime, but of course it takes extraordinary courage to speak out. We can all turn to Alexei Navalny for advice on this. He says, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing. So don’t stay idle.

What are you doing with your charity The real Russia?
The real Russia is not a political organization. It was formed primarily to help refugees fleeing war in Ukraine, but it also supports others forced to leave Russia due to their opposition to the war and the current regime.

In the current state of the war, is it possible to have a little hope?
I choose to believe that Ukraine will prevail and that Russians can determine their own future without an authoritarian government.

Coming back to art, what interests you now in terms of performance: what do you still want to do and learn?
I want to work as long as I am able and interested. Whatever lessons it brings, it will be a kind of humble spiritual exercise. I am currently preparing a play written by Yasushi Inoue called The Hunting Gun. It will be directed by French Canadian François Girard and co-starred with phenomenal Japanese actor Miki Nakatani. It will premiere in New York this spring. And, of course, I am always connected to everything that happens at the BAC which is a full-time job.

Do you intend to retire from the scene?
When that happens, I’ll let you know.

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