Mikhail Baryshnikov Dances His Way to Tel Aviv

In anticipation of his visit, for nine performances of a new play 'In Paris', 63-year-old dancer talks about staying young, politics, and why he won't boycott Israel.

Elad Samorzik
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Elad Samorzik

September 11, 2011, was a rainy day in Paris. Outside the Theatre National de Chaillot, overlooking the Eiffel Tower, a large crowd huddled under umbrellas and watched the national ceremony marking a decade since the World Trade Center disaster in New York. In the bowels of the theater, in a subterranean dressing room with pink walls, Mikhail Baryshnikov sat cross-legged on a chair encased in blue velvet upholstery. In a little while he would get ready for the matinee performance of "In Paris," a new play he is starring in, which arrives in Tel Aviv for nine performances at the Suzanne Dellal Center beginning on November 15.

His oceanic eyes glitter, making up for the wrinkles that have multiplied with the years, and seem to preserve by force the boyish appearance whose remnants are still visible at the age of 63. A few buttons on his long-sleeved T-shirt are undone, and on one of his fingers is a massive silver ring. The heavy Russian accent has not disappeared, even after 37 years in the United States. A mustache now adorns his face and his hair is shorter than usual, as demanded by his role in the play.

Mikhail Baryshnikov.Credit: Annie Leibovitz

Baryshnikov is excited about his upcoming visit to Israel, his third. The first visit was in 1996, when he came with his company, the White Oak Dance Project, to appear in the Roman theater in Caesarea - four years after he had planned on coming with that same company but canceled at the last moment.

The second visit was a little more than a year ago, when he came with the dancer Ana Laguna and put on a show with her that included works by Alexei Ratmansky, Mats Ek and Benjamin Millepied. During that visit he spoke at a press conference about the passage of time, and a number of media outlets turned his words into juicy headlines about his intention to retire from dancing soon.

The famous artist who once said that the stage is like opium to him, makes a face when he hears about those reports in the Israeli media.

"Listen, I am 63 years-old. It depends what you're dancing," he says. "The piece we did with Anna Laguna we played ourselves, our age. We are not dancing 'Romeo and Juliet.' You know, pas de deux. Last year Mats Ek did a piece for me and Niklas Ek, his brother, who was a famous dancer of the choreographer Maurice Bejart and worked with James Thierree. It was a fascinating piece, and he's much older than me - closer to 70 - and we did the piece together, very difficult. And then we did a show with Mats himself dancing.

"To stop dancing ...," he utters the phrase with contempt, going on to explain that what he's doing today is "a different kind of dancing. I'm not dancing in white tights, after all. I'm dancing in street shoes and in jeans sometimes. It's called dance, too. There are all kinds of movement - look at artists in tango or flamenco or butoh or hula. People dance at any age. Like, okay you make love - you dance; you eat - you dance. One day you stop, because of different reasons, because you got crippled, or you lost interest, or you can't produce good work. Then you make objective decisions. But I'm still interested, and I'm interested in work, and people and collaborators."

So you might dance till your last day?

"Till the last day - I'm not sure," he laughs.

Criticism of his visits to Israel on political grounds does not trouble Baryshnikov. "I am worried," he says, about the situation in the Middle East, "but I think boycotts of the arts - this is the wrong way to go." He recounts that after last year's performances he was asked in interviews why he does not support a cultural boycott of Israel.

"It has nothing to do with my work," he responds. "I would like to go and dance in Palestine one day, with great pleasure, great pleasure. If I'll be invited, I'll be there. Maybe then I'll be boycotted in Tel Aviv," he adds, laughing. "No, but I'm open, I'm not taking one side by any means."

Play about emigres

The play "In Paris" was adapted from a short story just a few pages long by Ivan Bunin, the first Russian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1933. It is about a man and a woman, two lonely Russian emigres who fall in love in 1930s' Paris. He is a retired general from the White Army whose wife abandoned him for a young lover; she is a young woman who makes a living waiting tables. But their love does not last, and the story ends with the general dying while traveling on the Metro.

The stage adaptation, which runs to about an hour and a half, was concocted by the Russian director and set designer Dmitry Krymov, who leads a Moscow theater laboratory. Founded in 2005, this is a group of young set artists who create what they term "painters' theater" - staged works that have a dominant visual language. Krymov's father was the well-known theater director Anatoly Efros; his mother is the theater critic and historian Natalia Krymova.

Dmitry Krymov and his people have created a world that is entirely black and white, one that combines music, poetry, pantomime, video projections, and giant mobile photographs to create a dynamic set. At the center of the stage stands a large round platform that turns from time to time.

Baryshnikov's co-star is the Russian actress Anna Sinyakina, and rounding out the ensemble are actors from Russia and Finland. Add to these the American technical crew and you get a "kind of UNICEF," Baryshnikov jokes. The play is performed in Russian and French, with subtitles in the local language of the place it is being performed.

"I knew him socially," Baryshnikov says of Krymov, but notes that the director had never seen him perform live, "not in the theater, not in dance." He had seen him in several films, however, and at some point, says the dancer, "he said, 'I think I have an idea for a play, are you interested?' I knew the writer, of course, because he's one of the best Russian writers of the last century. He was an immigrant writer. We didn't study his work in school, for obvious reasons. He was really a very anti-Soviet writer, although he was not playing politics - his stories are novels and romance. There is never any open political fight against Moscow, so to speak."

This is the first time that Baryshnikov has acted on stage in his mother tongue ("It's easier, it fits more in my voice and of course my accent" ), but it is not his debut theater performance. In 1989 he played Gregor Samsa in Steven Berkoff's adaptation of Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis," on Broadway. Later he took part in a Georgian theater production, and in 2007 he starred in New York in "Beckett Shorts" - a collection of four short plays by Samuel Beckett, directed by JoAnne Akalaitis.

"Krymov chose me because I was the same age as the character," he notes, "and there are similarities between this character and my situation." Baryshnikov further emphasizes that he is well acquainted with the story of the emigre circles to which the protagonists of the play belong: "I met those people when I came the first time to Paris. You know, generals and colonels, nobility, who came to my performances and introduced themselves, and I had conversations with them."

At the end of the play, in a scene that did not appear in the original story and in which the color red suddenly predominates, Baryshnikov portrays a sort of toreador and bursts into a brief Spanish dance, created by Alexei Ratmansky. This scene, Baryshnikov explains, was inspired by the fact that at the end of the story, the woman returns from the funeral, arranges the apartment, and comes across the general's gray coat, which has a red lining.

At one of the two performances I attended there was some booing; at the other there was none, but the applause did not suggest unusual enthusiasm.

"Well I knew it would be controversial," Baryshnikov says, and adds that he makes a point of never reading reviews while he is working, so as not to second-guess his performances.

"I was booed a few times in Paris, during my first performance with Roland Petit. He did a beautiful performance of 'The Queen of Spades,' and in the mid-70s. I don't pay attention. Paris is famous for it. It's a bit of snobbery, it's a tradition here. You have to show that you are not everybody. Because you are the independent thinker, 'Oh, I went to the Sorbonne, this means I know better.' Okay."

According to reports, Baryshnikov invested $250,000 of his own money in the new project and raised another $250,000 for it from a Russian friend who lives in New York. "I did this out of fun," he told The New York Times recently. "I'll never get my money back. This is just out of love."

The play had its world premiere in April in Finland, and in August it had a run in Holland. Paris followed. It is a bit odd to see an intimate play like this at the national theater, in an outsized auditorium with fearsome marble halls leading up to it. Baryshnikov agrees that the theater is too big, and thinks the play will work better at the Suzanne Dellal Center.

After Tel Aviv, "In Paris" will continue on to various cities in the United States, Italy and Spain. But in keeping with a condition set by Baryshnikov, it will not be staged in Russia - the birthplace of the director and a large part of the cast. He admits this decision is controversial, and that he has taken a lot of criticism for it from Russians: The dancer-actor, who defected to the West in 1974, persistently refrains from visiting Russia. When the matter comes up, he cites the cases of the writers Ivan Bunin and Joseph Brodsky, neither of whom ever returned to their homeland, and stresses that he, too, has no intention of going back. He has, however, paid a visit to Latvia, where he lived until the age of 16.

'Children heal quickly'

Mikhail Baryshnikov was born in Riga in 1948 to Russian parents. His father was a nationalist military man, and strict. The son was closer to his mother, a seamstress in a clothing store, who he says was a beautiful blonde, uneducated but a lover of the arts, who used to take him to the theater, opera and ballet. She died when he was 12. Years later he found out that she had committed suicide. "But children, you know, heal very quickly," he explains. "Of course it was a child's trauma, but there are more horrific stories than this."

Around that period he began to study ballet professionally. When he was 16, he traveled to Leningrad and joined the Vaganova Ballet Academy, where he became the protege of Alexander Pushkin, one of the greatest ballet teachers in the Soviet Union at the time, and a former colleague of Rudolf Nureyev. Three years later, like many Vaganova graduates, Baryshnikov joined the Kirov Ballet of the Mariinsky Theater.

Baryshnikov was soon singled out as a virtuoso with extraordinary charisma. He starred in principal roles, and had a series of parts tailor-made for him. Among others, choreographer Leonid Yakobson created the solo dance "Vestris" for him in 1969 so as to showcase his brilliant technique. Clive Barnes, then the dance critic for The New York Times, who was visiting the Soviet Union at the time, described him as a perfect dancer, the best he had ever seen.

Baryshnikov's living conditions in the USSR were seemingly excellent: a respectable salary, decent apartment, wonderful teachers, a high standing at the Kirov, and privileges denied to a majority of citizens. Still, real freedom did not exist there, he despised the communist system, and the broad horizons of dance in the West enticed him.

KGB agents always escorted the company on its overseas tours, as did undercover informants. In 1970 Natalia Makarova defected while the Kirov was on a visit to London, and after that the regime tightened supervision of the company's members abroad, and particularly of Baryshnikov, who had been suspected of planning to disappear during that same tour.

In June 1974 Baryshnikov was part of a Bolshoi tour to Toronto. In the past he said that he had not considered not returning from that tour, but that when he arrived in Canada he met some old friends and they came up with a plan together. It was a simple idea: The curtain was supposed to fall at 10:30 P.M. Two friends planned to wait for him by a restaurant nearby, take him to a safe house, switch cars there and drive to another house in a rural area. But the show began a quarter of an hour late, the audience's applause went on longer than usual, and Baryshnikov was asked to attend a reception that was held immediately afterward. He was certain the delay would foil the plan, but when he left the auditorium he gave the KGB men the slip, ignored the signature-seekers, leapt into the car that patiently awaited him - and got away.

"A tremolo, a heartbeat," is his most vivid memory from the defection, he says. "You understand you're starting a new life. It's not because you're scared about anything. It is the most serious decision of your life. And it is a bit embarrassing also."

Why embarrassing?

"You always kind of admire people who fight openly. That's why I hate the word 'defection.' It's like [a situation in which there are] two armies and somebody defects. I've always said, 'I am a selector, I am not defector' - the first few phrases in English I learned. I said I hate 'defector'; something defective about the people. It's a bad word."

In the States, Baryshnikov danced with the two most important companies in the country: First he became the star of the American Ballet Theater, where he forged an exquisite stage partnership with the ballerina Gelsey Kirkland and made several thousand dollars per performance. After a few years he made a move that could also be thought a type of defection: He moved to the rival company, New York City Ballet, which offered low wages but enabled him to work with the choreographer he idolized, George Balanchine.

Alongside his work in the classical companies, Baryshnikov also sought challenges in modern dance, working with Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham and Twyla Tharp. At the beginning of the 1980s, when he was only 31, he returned to ABT as artistic director, even though many thought the job was too big for him. On entering the post, he fired Kirkland, who rumor had it was suffering from eating disorders and drug addiction. The latter "repaid the debt" in her autobiography, "Dancing on My Grave."

Baryshnikov remained artistic director for a decade, battled the so-called star system that characterized the company, and incorporated into it a more contemporary repertoire, but from a box-office standpoint, his tenure was not a success. He left the company in deficit and came in for a good bit of criticism.

I'm curious what you think of classical ballet nowadays.

"I go to see City Ballet because it's kind of my alma mater ... When my children were young I took them to see 'Sleeping Beauty,' 'Nutcracker,' 'Giselle' and 'Swan Lake,' but then they passed that age. If something comes from the Paris Opera or some unusual dancer, then I'll go see it. I am interested but en passant. I'll go to see some play or a music concert or cinema, something new."

As for classical dance, he adds, "it's in my past." And indeed, since the early 1990s, Baryshnikov has devoted himself to an array of contemporary projects. First, he founded the White Oak Dance Project, together with choreographer Mark Morris. The project became a company, which was active until 2002 with the help of the American philanthropist Howard Gilman (a patron of Baryshnikov's since the '70s ). In 2005, he founded, in the heart of Manhattan, the arts center that bears his name, which is intended to coordinate the activities of the dance foundation he set up in 1979. The center has four big rehearsal spaces and two auditoriums, and to this day is abuzz with a range of activity by artists from all over the world. He is proud of this enterprise and calls it his most important work.

The financial crisis, observes Baryshnikov, "affected all of us non-profit organizations. It's much more effort to raise money." His center, he says, is in good shape, but he complains that "the government does not spend money on educating young people in the arts because from its perspective there are more challenging things to do, and the National Endowment [for the Arts] is not big enough, either. A country like Belgium, or socialist countries in central Europe spend more money on art education than the United States, which is a really puzzling thought. But we have poverty and a lot of social problems that President Obama has to deal with, and we're all with him. We understand that, I hope he will win [a second term]. I know he is not very popular in your country, but I think wrongly so, I think he is a great man and I am really very much his supporter. And Hillary Clinton too, I think she's a dynamite woman. She's an old friend ... I was supporting her for the presidency, but then she lost, and of course I switched to Obama, but I'm glad she took this job."

Carrie Bradshaw's lover

In 1977, Baryshnikov played in the film "The Turning Point," alongside Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft, in a role that earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor; in 1985 he starred with Isabella Rossellini in "White Nights," the plot of which drew inspiration from his own life story. He also nurtured his celebrity status, launched a clothing and perfume collection, posed for advertisements, and was a partner in owning several New York restaurants.

In 2003 he played the Russian lover of Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker ) in the final season of "Sex and the City." He describes his participation in the television series - which raised a lot of eyebrows but proved to be a brilliant marketing move for Baryshnikov- as a positive experience.

"My serious friends in Russia and elsewhere said, 'Why are you doing this?'" But when he watched the show, he decided to accept the offer. "It was just a very curious challenge. You know, because the actresses were wonderful," he says. "On television you have to work very fast; they're changing texts at the last second, you have to improvise in front of the camera. It's a great school of professionalism. And when all these actors live together for six years and do series and series, just like that, for them it's like they arrive, it's in character. For me it was harder, but I'm glad I did it."

As an expert on ballet movies, what did you think of "Black Swan"?

"I didn't like it, but you know it's a kitsch kind of ... it's kind of a cult film. It's nothing to do with any reality. Natalie [Portman] is lovely, she is a good actress, but it's not serious."

Baryshnikov's most famous love affair was with actress Jessica Lange, with whom he had a daughter in 1981, Alexandra, named for his mother. But Lange left him for the playwright Sam Shepard. Today, the dancer lives in New York with his long-term partner, Lisa Rinehart, a former ballerina. The couple have three children: Peter, 22; Anna, 19; and Sofia, 17. They also have three cats. None of his children followed in his path to become a dancer: The youngest daughter is "just playing boyfriends and girlfriends," he says; his son is studying photography and filmmaking; and Anna is studying acting. Alexandra, who has two children, works with him at the New York foundation. Does he like being a grandfather?

"Oh, it's great," he says, "lots of pleasure, no responsibility."

Baryshnikov is planning to see as many dance shows as possible during his visit to Israel. He says he is familiar with the Batsheva Dance Company and the work of its director, Ohad Naharin, and he mentions the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company.

"The enthusiasm about contemporary dance in Israel, it's astonishing. It's much more than in New York," he explains. "I was astounded. You walk around Suzanne Dellal and there are hundreds of dancers and choreographers, and it's so beautiful. Not every work is maybe so interesting, but they're trying. They're bringing choreographers from Europe - from Germany, and England, and France and the United States - and it's kind of starting ... but what's great is that there's support, and this enthusiasm, festivals. We never have anything like that, of that sort, of that kind of energy, enthusiasm."

About Naharin, Baryshnikov says the choreographer "attracts some of the best dancers in the world, that's for sure. This group is ... my jaw is on the floor. I never saw the combination of that kind of beauty and energy and technique."

Several of Batsheva's outstanding dancers today are Americans who previously participated in your projects and companies. Would it be fair to say that Naharin took your dancers away?

"Yes, but you know it's not him. Dancers go instinctively to something challenging and interesting. It's DV8 or Pina Bausch or it's Billy Forsyth. It comes from admiration of the choreographer, ethics of the work, challenging difficult life like in Israel. You know, they are in ensemble first, and not in the main company. I talked to the dancers - it's a horrific schedule. They go to the army for the first couple of years. To go through this kind of routine, then you could take anything after that. From that it's easier, but to get there ..."

Baryshnikov also knows Israeli dancers and choreographers who work in the States, among them Deganit Shemy, who put on her work "2 Kilos of Sea" at his New York arts center earlier this fall. "She's working very well," he says, "It's very interesting work. I think it's a good step for her."

Why did you decide not to develop a career as a choreographer?

"Choreography, it's a special talent. Not every dancer choreographs. I had the privilege to work with the best choreographers who ever lived, from Martha Graham to Merce Cunningham to Balanchine to Robbins to Mark Morris, to Mats Ek. Why should I go and make a mediocre ballet?

"I staged some of my productions of 19th-century classics when I was running the Ballet Theater, some better, some worse, but I'm not a choreographer. I like to collaborate with people, and to have people use me as a tool for their work. You already sleep not so well when you're a dancer; can you imagine being a director or choreographer? No, life is too short, it's too late. Although, I could have probably choreographed a decent work. But it's like being a poet: You could rhyme a few poems, but it's not necessary for you to be a poet. Or just because you improvise a little bit on the keyboard, doesn't mean that you'll be a composer. You know, it's a special talent you have to be born with it. You have to know from a tender age who you are. I was a dancer."

And an excellent one.

"Well, I was lucky to be in the right places at the right times with the right people. That's the story of my life.

That's putting it modestly.

"No, it's the truth. It's the truth. I was lucky with people. If there's any advice I give to young artists, it's to be totally unselfish in the first part of your life and give yourself to other people. It will return, you know, people who come and help you toward the end of your life. And it happened to me."

Why don't you like being called a sex symbol?

"Because I am not a sex symbol. It's just what people made out of me. It's a kind of illusion from the stage, maybe. People who know me, it has nothing to do with reality. I am not a skirt chaser, you know, I am not a sex maniac. I am not nice-looking, I am not tall, I am not a hero by any means. And I am not a macho kind of a guy, so what's this sex all about?"

Still, what's your secret for staying fresh and maintaining your attractive status?

"Well, I always say that in the morning I try to challenge myself not to get bored with myself, that I want to surprise myself. But it has to be not to get too bored or very skeptical about everything, very passive and cynical. And if I think that way, it gives me energy and intellectual curiosity. You have to have really interesting friends who can challenge you. You know, if you do something not kosher, you have to hear from them, and say it when they do something not right. That, I think, that's my motto in life. I've always had really wonderful friends, in Russia and outside of Russia, and that [allows me to maintain] my life ethics. Clean life ethics. And that reflects then on stage."

Is getting older frightening?

"I think about it. I'm afraid of death like everybody else. I am not religious person, I don't practice. I was christened, and I am Russian Orthodox, but I am agnostic. Let's say, you know, I'm not an atheist, but I don't practice. I like to see rituals - the choreography of it and the spirit and beauty of it. But you never know. You never know what might happen."

Do you miss those days of being a principal dancer in ballet companies, partying at Studio 54?

"Studio 54," he says dismissively, "that's an exaggeration. I was there maybe three times altogether. But when you're there, okay so it's Mick Jagger there, or somebody else, or this and that, of course it's all over the press and then 'Oh, okay he's sleeping there, practically!' Seriously, I was there with Martha Graham, twice, and Andy Warhol and Liza [Minnelli] and Mick Jagger and those people, because at that time everybody was there. But how could I be there until 6 o'clock in the morning when I had to be at 10 o'clock in the class, at dance class. No, of course not! Just a few times."

Still, do you miss those days?

"No, no," he declares categorically. "It was a bit chaotic. Tiresome, because you work very long hours. I sometimes did three or four ballets at the same time, with different choreographers. And dance in the evening. It was ridiculous, but I was young and stupid, but I was strong. You know, the results were different. In some cases it was a success, in some cases a failure. That's the way it is when you take this responsibility. You decide to do it, and then you say 'Well, I put too much on my plate.' And it's difficult to eat when the plate is like that. You put things on, and everything starts to fall off. And you learn.

Asked if he feels like a true American, Baryshnikov says, "I like to think like I'm a man of the world. I feel totally Parisian in Paris. Totally Parisian. I have my place here, a lot of close friends and collaborators here, whom I can really feel like I can talk serious business with them. Human business, not 'business' business. Paris was always the dream of my childhood. We grew up on French art, like all Russians. America, United States, North America - it's a new country. Of course, if somebody would ask me to choose 'either Paris or New York,' I would choose New York. But spiritually, somehow, I love Europe."

Do you have any remaining dreams to fulfill?

"No, I live day to day. I live day by day. I dream sometimes and I don't remember what I dreamt."



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