Mikhail Baryshnikov enters the City Center dressing room with unexpected modesty. He shakes hands formally, and as he sits, he pulls another chair toward him. Slowly, he lifts his right leg, applies an ice pack under his knee, then rests the whole affair gently on the chair.
"There," he says stiffly. "I'm ready."
As of this rainy afternoon, Baryshnikov has twice danced a new all-solo program--his first ever--in New York. The notices, just published, are raves, echoes of reviews that accompanied much the same show in Europe last fall. The New York Times' Anna Kisselgoff wrote: "If his solo program . . . were not sold out, one would urge all to rush to City Center and see it." Reviewer Clive Barnes opined under this headline: "Mikhail's Brilliance Undimmed."
What all the reviews have focused on is the finale of "An Evening of Music and Dance," a work called "HeartBeat: mb." In it, a bare-chested Baryshnikov dances to the amplified sound of his own heartbeat. The audience can not only see his 50-year-old physique (his birthday was last Monday), it can experience his every pulse. Baryshnikov will bring "HeartBeat," and three other dances, interspersed with musical interludes played by the White Oak Chamber Ensemble, to Los Angeles Saturday.
Onstage, Baryshnikov looks forever young--leaping, turning, bending. Up close he is far different from the boyish man dancing so precisely and elegantly. He has on glasses, his hair is cropped very short, his body seems thin and taut, not the beautifully supple being we have seen on the stage. He is dressed casually--a wheat-colored sweater, loose slacks and therapeutic sandals designed to massage the aching feet of the world's most famous dancer.
Q: Were you pleased this morning? Did you read the reviews?
A: I read, yes--I read [the] New York Times. Yes, very pleased. It's always nice to read positive notices, but if you believe the positive ones, you have to deal with the negative ones.
Q: On opening night here, during "HeartBeat: mb," the audience didn't cough, didn't seem to breathe. They were totally absorbed.
A: It's interesting because I danced this piece in Europe, and the dynamics were different. Americans tend to see it in the beginning like a joke. But it's fun to see. They're just getting into the piece.
It's such a fresh piece for me. You have new routines popping out [he laughs], according to your heartbeat, of course. The second [New York] performance was totally different. The heartbeat was much slower and relaxed.
Q: Yes, on opening night, I thought it couldn't be your heart, it was too fast. People in the audience kept touching their necks to check by comparison.
A: The heart is attached to your emotions and your mental state, and obviously at this performance, I was a bit nervous. No matter that I was not, you know, breathing deeply. Just [to have] one thought at the beginning of the piece is to push your heartbeat up, and it [was] probably about 150 before I did one step, before one single move.
Q: The audience gets inside you in a way.
A: It's an unusual "instrument." When you lie down for a simple cardiology test, you know, you look at those little blue arrows going up and down and this is already a weird feeling--that one thing that actually your heart is producing. Can you imagine a lie detector test? But listening [to] yourself, it is probably even more disturbing than listening to the sound of your voice [on a tape recorder]. It's scary in a way: It's me--no, it couldn't be me. It's the technology which has really transformed my beautiful voice into this ugly, squeaky, illiterate sound. [Hearing the heart beat is] pretty much the same.
It becomes a kind of pingpong game, your partial ability to control your heartbeat. You can slow it down with breathing, you know, and exercising, but [onstage] it's more a state of mind than some kind of gimmick . . . and that adds a certain mystery to this piece.
That is why it is very internal for me. Dancing is very much a reflection of your state of mind in the present--in a split second. [In this piece] you hear the heartbeat [as well as some electrical impulses], and you hear the changes and skips, because I have arrhythmia--it's normal, a lot of other dancers have this, too--and it will say, uh, oops, blip, plop.
Q: And when that happens you move with it?
A: If you are in the middle of a move, you have to finish it. But it takes you by surprise.
Q: What do you want to give the audience with this piece?
A: I want to give the same experience I have. It's a trip into the self. Thoughts about mortality, and how important or unimportant is the human body, vis-a-vis [the] human mind, and how [they] are related. It is about the heart as an instrument of purely mechanical body function, plus all these romantic elements--what the heart means for humankind. You know, all the cliches involved.
I don't think it's a depressing piece. I think it's a piece for me now. I think at some point in your life you seriously think about when and how you would like to--or wouldn't like to--go. And the question of how strong you are and are you prepared.
Q: Like to go . . . ?
A: To go from this world, somewhere.
But obviously this is not only my creation. Sara Rudner [the choreographer] and Chris [Janney, who designed the wireless device that transmits Baryshnikov's heartbeat and electrical impulses to and from the brain] came to me, and, you know, these were probably thoughts in their minds when they offered me this opportunity.
Chris started to work [on the monitor] after his father's death. They were very, very close, and he felt it in a deep way, and because he [is] a jazz musician and a whiz at acoustics, he got together with Sara Rudner and worked on this idea.
So many people try to describe dancing by talking about soulful dancing, dancing from deep inside of you. As a dancer, you want to just get everything up on the surface, literally. ["HeartBeat"] adds an extra layer of transparency and vulnerability to the situation.
Q: Looking at you onstage, watching you dance, it's hard to think about your mortality.
A: Well, my mother died when she was 39. From my father's side, everybody was dropping dead at a very young age. In the last few years, I've felt like I just went from funeral to funeral, with friends who were 10 years older and those who were just my age. Automatically you start to think, you know, "Who's next?" And maybe you are.
But it's OK. I think it's much healthier to express this in a work like this than to get up in the morning with cold sweats, although I don't think I will avoid that.
We are all afraid of death. I've never practiced religion; I was not brought up as a believer. I said to somebody that [dying] will be a little bit disappointing. It will be not quite the same [he laughs]--a little under the present standards.
Q: About your recent trip to Riga, Latvia, where you grew up--you have said going back brought forth almost no strong emotions.
A: It was a place of my childhood, but maybe I'm not emotionally programmed to be totally attached to my motherland or whatever. But, it was never that, because we were guests there.
Q: In Latvia.
A: In Latvia, yes. My father came [from Russia] after the Second World War and, of course, we were foreigners for Latvians, and that's why I believe I never really felt that it was my home.
Q: In some ways, the solo concert has the feel of an intimate gathering in a Russian home--dance, music, each person showing his talents.
A: That's why I call it "An Evening of Music and Dance." Some people probably raise their eyebrows and say, well this [music] belongs [by itself] in a concert hall, but in my book it works, especially when you have decent acoustics in the hall, [and] when the choreographed pieces are not that long--10 to 15 minutes.
Q: You've been asked about the Russian ballet influence on your career, but how do you feel about that today, almost 24 years after you defected?
A: Russian ballet, Russian dancers, the years in school, who I am now--it's all sort of [a] melting pot. Studies at the Russian school or the influences of American neoclassicism or modern dance influences--it's all a matter of accumulation of experiences. Some of them come easily. Some of them, you are working very hard to achieve, certain technical aspects. With all due . . . well, Russian ballet was just a part of my experience.
Q: If you had not defected, have you ever thought where or who you would be now?
A: I'm afraid to even think it.
Q: What sort of challenges do you see now ahead of you?
A: I never think about just challenges. I really would like to find projects that work with people in experimental theater, maybe related to movement, maybe not.
I'm having a very good time just continuing working with White Oak [Dance Project, the company he founded with choreographer Mark Morris in 1990]. I'm thinking about commissioning a few more [pieces] for the spring season. It's always fun to try to work with somebody for the first time.
We are [already] doing two new pieces, one by Kraig Patterson [Patterson also has a work on the solo program], and then Neil Greenberg, a New York choreographer. He used to dance with Merce Cunningham, now he has his own group and he's a very talented man.
Q: Do you see yourself as helping to re-energize dance for Americans?
A: [Laughs] God forbid that I'm on any mission. Of course, awareness and support of the arts, we're all very concerned about it. It seems [the] majority down in Washington [is] a bit embarrassingly unaware of how important the arts are for our future generations. It's not just another social program. This is a true and thorough investment in the human being, in the soul of the human being.
You know, I am not an activist. I used to go up to the Hill with Martha Graham to try to raise money for her company, but at that time it was much easier. Now it's a nightmare, plus the costs are climbing up now so fast. We have five sold-out performances here, and it's successful, but you wouldn't imagine how little after expenses and taxes our production company actually gets. It's laughable.
Q: How much?
A: [Shakes his head] No, but it's very, very, very modest. And you can imagine companies that have not sold out and they have, like, two weeks to perform--they will lose their shirt. They then have to raise money to perform because it's not "Cats." It's not "Phantom."
Q: Certainly there was a crush of people Wednesday night.
A: Well, I rarely dance in New York and this is [my] first solo event.
Q: Given your box-office draw, won't you have to keep on performing to keep the company afloat?
A: You've simplified my thought a bit. Maybe, maybe. Although our group is a very small group, there might be a future without me, or [with] me in the wings or maybe it would transform from a commercial entity to nonprofit. And then we'll go like everybody else with a hat trying to raise money. Now, I don't have this unnecessary or embarrassing or time-consuming job because we count on the box office."
Q: We've talked about "HeartBeat," but tell about your views of some of the other pieces you're performing?
A: We worked to make it special for one evening so it wouldn't be monotonous. "Three Russian Preludes" [choreographed by Mark Morris to three of Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues] is one of those pieces with a great touch of existentialism but in the most profound way.
It is most amazing that this guy from Seattle could really seriously decode the ethnic complexity of this music, because it's very Russian. At the same time, it [has] that kind of universal appeal and layers, and he puts this in very few limited, bold and dry kind of steps. I think it is such a fascinating work.
Q: It's like the Soviet posters from the 1920s, an industrial theme?
A: Shostakovich's Preludes were written in the 1920s and the positions are very constructivist. There is also a folk element--it's the signature of the composer.
In Los Angeles, I may do a Dana Reitz piece, "Unspoken Territory," a long piece in total silence. With "HeartBeat," this will be something different--because they are both improvisation pieces.
As he begins to leave, Baryshnikov slowly removes his leg from the chair. It is his body's acknowledgment that it is half a century old, not the spritely youth that came to the West from the Kirov. But after talking for almost an hour--the time he has allotted for this interview--he stands to shake hands politely. And as he marches toward rehearsal, weak knee or not, he suddenly moves again with the ease and grace of a 20-year-old.
"Mikhail Baryshnikov: An Evening of Music and Dance," Wiltern Theatre, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.; and February 11-14, 8 p.m. $15-$60. (310) 825-2101.