Ballet Theatre Minus Baryshnikov : Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner report that though Misha’s gone, optimism’s back at ABT : ABT’s McKerrow, Gardner

When American Ballet Theatre dancers John Gardner and Amanda McKerrow first heard of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s decision to resign after 10 years as artistic director of the company, they went into shock.

“I thought my world was shattered when I heard the announcement last June,” recalls company principal McKerrow. “I came into the company in 1982, two years after Misha had taken over. I felt that under his direction I had been given opportunities to become a leading ballerina--opportunities that under other circumstances, I wouldn’t have had. And nerve-racking as it was to dance under the eye of such a perfectionist, I knew what he wanted.”

McKerrow and Gardner will be dancing together in Clark Tippet’s new “Some Assembly Required” on the opening night of American Ballet Theatre’s Orange County engagement Tuesday through March 18. Gardner will also dance his first Romeo in Kenneth MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet” (opposite Marianna Tcherkassky) on March 15.

A soloist (ranked under principals), Gardner characterizes the dancers’ general fear after Baryshnikov’s decision. “It was frightening for all of us, because we had this image of somebody new coming in, scrapping everything Misha had worked so hard to do at Ballet Theatre, and restructuring even the way we danced.”

“I think it was all the more frightening,” McKerrow says, “because I hadn’t heard even the faintest rumor that this was coming.”

Baryshnikov had been more than just the dancers’ boss at American Ballet Theatre. He had threaded himself into their personal lives as well. When McKerrow and Gardner were married in the summer of 1985, they even gave up their honeymoon to be with him.

Baryshnikov asked them to join one of the summer tours that he organized outside the regular Ballet Theatre schedule, McKerrow said. “We said no, because we had already planned the wedding and booked a lovely garden. But he wanted us, and they were going to Hawaii.”

Gardner continues the story: “We left the company in Louisiana, flew to Maryland, had a couple of days before the ceremony, got married and flew back to Dallas that night for a performance. If Amanda’s brother hadn’t videotaped the affair, I don’t know if I would have believed it really happened.”

In announcing his resignation, Baryshnikov said he would remain at the company’s helm through its 50th anniversary season. Then in September, he abruptly terminated his contact in a dispute with the company’s newly appointed executive director, Jane Hermann. The disagreement had reportedly been over the firing of Charles France, Baryshnikov’s assistant.

“I don’t even know what it was that France did for the company,” Gardner said. “I know that he had Misha’s confidence, but that’s it. When Misha’s resignation suddenly came into effect, I think it was best. You have to remember that Misha’s word was law at American Ballet Theatre, and after he had said he was leaving, it could never be the same.”

Part of the dancers’ uncertainty stemmed from the changes Baryshnikov instituted in 1980. Gardner joined the company in 1978 directly from the American Ballet Theatre school, so he remembers the transition from the regime of Lucia Chase, who with Oliver Smith, had run the company since 1945.

“Lucia Chase was grand, and her concept of Ballet Theatre was grand,” he said. “She imported many famous stars, who of course attracted a large following. Lucia was very public oriented, she always looked to the box office. She believed that you should give the public what it wants.

“Misha, on the other hand, was very pure. While Lucia had rejoiced in the many styles she brought together at Ballet Theatre, Misha wanted the company all drawn from the same mold. He wanted everybody to move in the same way,” Gardner said.

“Under Lucia, dancers went to whatever class they saw fit. Though they still did that sometimes, Misha stressed the technique that he was brought up with. He wanted people to take company class so they could learn that style. He began his revolution in class.

“Furthermore, Misha was a perfectionist,” Gardner said. “He worked hard himself and he demanded that from his dancers. When Misha made a correction and told me to do a step in a way that was different from what I had learned, I believed him. All I had to do was look at him and I could see the truth of what he was telling. It was as if he proved his point every time he danced.”

McKerrow had already won a gold medal from the Moscow International Competition--ballet’s version of the Olympics--when she joined American Ballet Theatre in 1982, but she too immediately fell under Baryshnikov’s sway.

“I agree with John; I believed everything Misha said. It was not just his instruction, but the inspiration we drew from his dancing. That first year I was with the company, he was out there at least three nights a week, frequently more. After that he began to take movie offers, had injuries and other projects, so he wasn’t around as much.”

But Gardner and McKerrow insist power always remained in Baryshnikov’s hands. When the director was away, the artistic staff still transferred all questions to him. He was the final arbiter of everything.

“It’s when he would come back after an absence,” McKerrow remarks, “that he made everyone really nervous. He was frightening with his moods, and we had to learn to live with that. He could pick things up so quickly that, if you had trouble with a step, he just couldn’t understand that you would eventually get it.”

McKerrow danced her first “Giselle” with Baryshnikov in Los Angeles in 1987. Her preparation for this debut was almost a paradigm of the goings-on in the company during the last years of Baryshnikov’s regime.

“We had done the second act together on Misha’s summer tours,” McKerrow said, “so I knew what he wanted there, but I had never done the first act at all. I had one rehearsal with Misha in Chicago and I remember he told me just to be natural, not to think about the steps but about Giselle’s character. Then he left. I had to rehearse the whole ballet by myself with (ballet mistress) Elena Tchernichova. When Misha came back a few days before the performance, I was very nervous and insecure, but then it all magically came together.”

Now that Baryshnikov is gone, Gardner and McKerrow say the company is less tense and more optimistic. As Gardner explains, “Misha was such a perfectionist that there wasn’t a lot of optimism around here--only constant striving.”

“We can have more of a dialogue with the ballet masters and mistresses now,” McKerrow points out. “Before, Misha thought you should do a step this way (and) that was the way you did it. Now there is more experimentation. The artistic authority has devolved onto the ballet masters and mistress, and I think that is good for our working relationship with them. Misha made them especially nervous, because they were responsible for how the ballet was set.”

Both dancers reported their enthusiasm for executive director Jane Hermann. “She doesn’t hole up in her office,” Gardner observes, “but comes into rehearsals and stands in the wings talking to everyone. She wants to know what the dancers think. Only time will tell if we can do without an artistic director, but for right now I think it is best, because it makes the dancers and the artistic staff feel responsible for the ballets we are doing. It gives us a new sense of our own identity.

“If Jane Hermann can bring in authorities (to coach ABT) like Margot Fonteyn and (the famed Russian ballerina) Irina Kolpakova), which she did just before we went on tour,” McKerrow says, “then we will continue to have the kind of inspiration that we knew so well under Misha.”