It is early afternoon at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. On the fourth floor, a woman in a black leotard dances in a large studio with high ceilings and great views of the Hudson River. She hardly pauses as the most famous dancer of them all stops at the door, looks pleased and moves on.
Mikhail Baryshnikov is proprietor, mentor and role model to the many choreographers and dancers, musicians and actors coming to the 4-year-old center to create, rehearse or perform new work. Baryshnikov himself does his warm-ups and rehearsing in a studio upstairs. Just back from holiday after a dance tour of seven European countries, he works at the ballet barre every day and looks terrific.
At 61, he defies age as he once defied gravity. He may be a grandfather and graying, but the fabled Russian dancer has the stride and carriage of a young man. He is small for a dancer, just 5-foot-7, but muscular and fit in his T-shirt and slacks. As he chats in a small conference room, his familiar face is expressive, his smile easy, and his conversation alternately lively and intense.
It appears to be a good time for Baryshnikov. A new theater downstairs is nearly done, the youngest of his four children is now a teenager, and his performing career is both ample and varied. He starred in “Beckett Shorts” at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2007, after he’d inhabited the rich and romantic Russian artist Aleksandr Petrovsky, who wooed and briefly won Carrie Bradshaw in the last season of HBO’s “Sex and the City.” Earlier this year, he published a new book of photography, “Merce My Way.” As he says in his lightly accented, idiosyncratic English: “I have the life of seven cats.”
Apparently so. Baryshnikov and Spanish-born dancer Ana Laguna launch the second season of Santa Monica College’s Broad Stage next weekend as the first stop in a U.S. tour that should bring new respect to middle-age dance performance. Broad Artistic Director Dale Franzen, herself a baby boomer, says she is “moved and excited about the idea of seeing these two older dancers dancing a program like this, which is sexy, romantic, intense and envelope-pushing. I think something different and very deep comes to the table.”
Billed as three solos and a duet, the pieces share what Baryshnikov calls “a European touch.” His world-class choreographers are Laguna’s husband, Swedish choreographer Mats Ek; French-born New York City Ballet principal dancer Benjamin Millepied; and former Bolshoi Artistic Director Alexei Ratmansky, now the artist in residence at American Ballet Theatre. The pieces are all “very personal,” says Baryshnikov. “These choreographers tend to carve their pieces from inside out. This is definitely not mainstream American dance.”
These dances are also more theatrical than physical. “They all know that I’m a man in my early 60s,” he says. “Martha Graham used to say that a dancer’s body cannot lie. I agree with her in all respects, but I would add especially when it is the body of an older man: You cannot fake it in exuberance or technically. You are who you are. In a way, less is more; that cliché suddenly becomes relevant.”
Laguna, 54, a longtime star of Sweden’s Cullberg Ballet, recalls seeing Baryshnikov dance with the Kirov when the Russian company came to Spain many years ago. “It is very inspiring to work with him and to see him dancing in the other pieces,” she says. “Often one gets to an age where physical capacity is reduced, but it can also open up other possibilities you couldn’t have thought of before.”
Choreographer Ek, 64, agrees. “Older dancers are diminished by injuries, by aging, by concerns about what the dancing has done to their bodies. But they have a richer backpack to grab from after dancing and living so many years. Even if they don’t have the capacity to spin and jump like before, they still have the feeling for dynamics and coordination. It is like swimming and biking -- once you learn it, you won’t lose that knowledge.”
Laguna, Ek and Baryshnikov had known one another socially for years, and all three say they had hoped to work together one day. But, confides Baryshnikov, once he agreed to the duet with Laguna, he was a little worried. “Mats’ pieces are extremely physical and extremely challenging technically. At my age, I thought, ‘Oy, what am I getting myself into?’ But it is the opportunity of a lifetime for any dancer to work with a choreographer of the stature of Mats.”
Millepied, 32, recalls how he first met Baryshnikov when the younger dancer was still in ballet school. “He was an inspiration to any kid growing up wanting to become a ballet dancer,” says Millepied. “He not only had this phenomenal technique, but he also had the brains and hard-core discipline. He had the body and face and the whole package -- everything all at once.”
For this tour, Millepied choreographed “Years Later,” a 16-minute solo of Baryshnikov dancing onstage with a film version of his younger self, a piece Millepied calls both simple and playful. “It is just about dance, and one of Misha’s great qualities is a very natural, very simple way of dancing. He is offering what a man his age can offer, which is maturity.”
Dancing professionally at 61 comes at a price, of course. “I spend at least a couple hours a day in the studio, every day, whether I’m dancing or not,” says Baryshnikov. “But when I am rehearsing, it is five or six hours. It’s just a habit. I don’t go to a gym, I don’t do yoga. I don’t do personal training. I do my dance class. I do ballet barre and go through the pieces I am currently performing. When I’m alone, I work sometimes with music, sometimes without and sometimes just listening to NPR.”
“Nobody is born a dancer,” Baryshnikov wrote in the 1976 book “Baryshnikov at Work.” “You have to want it more than anything.”
He has had many surgeries, particularly on his right knee, and says experience has been a good teacher. “I know the shortcuts for my body, how long it takes to warm up, what I should do to dance this particular piece,” he says. “I’ve been hurt quite a few times. The more injuries you get, the smarter you get.”
Connecting the steps
Baryshnikov has danced since he was a child. Born in January 1948 in Riga, Latvia (where he and Laguna danced in May), Baryshnikov entered the school of the Kirov Ballet at 15, studying with Alexander Pushkin. He became a principal dancer with the Kirov in 1969, staying with the company until 1974, when, at age 26, he defected to the West. Eager to move beyond the restrictive repertoire of Soviet ballet, he fled his KGB watchers after a performance in Toronto, running off to a waiting car.
He soon was in New York, learning English from American television. He danced with American Ballet Theatre, then for 15 months with George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet, where he danced more than 20 new roles before making what he has called “another defection” back to ABT, where he was artistic director for 10 years. He has starred in five films, receiving an Oscar nomination for the 1977 film “The Turning Point,” and he was nominated for a Tony Award for his 1989 Broadway performance in “Metamorphosis.”
Earnings from all those activities have bolstered the Baryshnikov Dance Foundation, begun in 1979. The White Oak Dance Project that he and choreographer Mark Morris co-founded in 1990 helped keep choreographers choreographing and dancers dancing with commissions and tours for more than a decade. His dance tours today raise money for the Baryshnikov Arts Center much as his clothing and perfume lines did for White Oak.
The arts center, which he has called “the most serious challenge of my life,” opened in 2005. Funded in part by Baryshnikov’s initial gift of $1 million, it offers dance performances and films, chamber music programs, residencies, seminars and more. Once BAC’s renovated Jerome Robbins Theater opens early next year, the highly regarded Wooster Group is expected to become its resident theater company.
As he takes a visitor on a tour of the center, Baryshnikov resembles a proud parent, showing one studio, then another, one office, then another. “I think a key inspiration was New York in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” observes BAC Executive Director Stanford Makishi. “Misha reflected upon that time as having a fertile set of circumstances, where artists of different disciplines -- Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg -- mixed, sought each other out and created work together.”
Baryshnikov clearly likes moving back and forth himself from one medium to the next, and while he declines to be more specific, he says he’d like to do more theater. Meanwhile, due this year or in early 2010 are new dances with Ek, Laguna and Ek’s 66-year-old brother, the dancer and actor Niklas Ek.
In interviews at 40, again at 50 and now at 61, Baryshnikov has hedged the question of retirement. Indicating he plans to keep dancing so long as he is happy with his own work, Baryshnikov expresses as much astonishment as everyone else about his longevity as a dancer.
“I never thought it would drag on so long,” he says, “and be so interesting.”