Mikhail Nikolaevich Baryshnikov (Russian: Михаил Николаевич Барышников, Latvian: Mihails Barišņikovs) (born January 28, 1948) is a Soviet-born Russian American dancer, choreographer, and actor, often cited alongside Vaslav Nijinsky and Rudolf Nureyev as one of the greatest ballet dancers of the 20th century. After a promising start in the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad, he defected to Canada in 1974 for more opportunities in western dance. After freelancing with many companies, he joined the New York City Ballet as a principal dancer to learn George Balanchine's style of movement. He then moved to New York to dance with the American Ballet Theatre, where he later became artistic director.
Baryshnikov has spearheaded many of his own artistic projects and has been associated in particular with promoting modern dance, premiering dozens of new works, including many of his own. His success as a dramatic actor on stage, cinema and television has helped him become probably the most widely recognized contemporary ballet dancer.
Born in Riga to Russian parents, now in independent Latvia, Baryshnikov began his ballet studies there in 1960. In 1964, he entered the Vaganova School, in what was then Leningrad (now again St. Petersburg). Baryshnikov soon won the top prize in the junior division of the International Varna Competition. He joined the Kirov Ballet and Mariinsky Theater in 1967, dancing the “Peasant” pas de deux in Giselle. Recognizing Baryshnikov's talent, in particular the strength of his stage presence and purity of his classical technique, several Soviet choreographers, including Oleg Vinogradov, Konstantin Sergeyev, Igor Tchernichov, and Leonid Jakobson, choreographed ballets for him. Baryshnikov made signature roles of Jakobson's 1969 virtuosic Vestris along with an intensely emotional Albrecht in Giselle. While still in the Soviet Union, he was called by New York Times critic Clive Barnes "the most perfect dancer I have ever seen."
While on an excruciating tour in Canada with the Bolshoi Ballet in 1974, Baryshnikov defected, requesting political asylum in Toronto, and joined the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.He also announced to the dance world he would not go back to the U.S.S.R. He later stated that Christina Berlin, an American friend of his, helped engineer his defection during his 1970 tour of London. His first televised performance after coming out of temporary seclusion in Canada was with the National Ballet of Canada in La Sylphide. He then went on to the United States.
From 1974 to 1978, he was principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), where he partnered with Gelsey Kirkland. He also worked with the New York City Ballet, with George Balanchine and as a regular guest artist with the Royal Ballet. He also toured with ballet and modern dance companies around the world for fifteen months. Several roles were created for him, including roles Opus 19: The Dreamer (1979), by Jerome Robbins, Rhapsody (1980), by Frederick Ashton, and Other Dances with Natalia Makarova by Jerome Robbins. He returned to ABT in 1980 as dancer and artistic director, a position he held for a decade. On July 3, 1986, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States. From 1990 to 2002, Baryshnikov was artistic director of the White Oak Dance Project, a touring company he co-founded with Mark Morris. In 2006 he launched the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York.
Baryshnikov's talent was obvious from his youth, but the Soviet system in which he grew up was ill-suited for developing it. Shorter than most dancers, he could not tower over a ballerina en pointe and was therefore relegated to secondary parts. More frustrating to him, the Soviet dance world hewed closely to 19th-century traditions and deliberately shunned the creative choreographers of the West, whose work Baryshnikov glimpsed in occasional tours and films. His main goal in leaving the Soviet Union was to work with these innovators; in the first two years after his defection, he danced for no fewer than 13 different choreographers, including Jerome Robbins, Glen Tetley, Alvin Ailey, and Twyla Tharp. "It doesn't matter if every ballet is a success or not," he told New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff in 1976, "The new experience gives me a lot." He cited his fascination with the ways Ailey mixed classical and modern technique and his initial discomfort when Tharp insisted he incorporate eccentric personal gestures in the dance.
In 1978, he abandoned his freelance career to spend 18 months as a principal of the New York City Ballet, run by the legendary George Balanchine. "Mr. B," as he was known, rarely welcomed guest artists and had refused to work with both Nureyev and Makarova; Baryshnikov's decision to devote his full attentions to the New York company stunned the dance world. Balanchine never created a new work for Baryshnikov, though he did coach the young dancer in his distinctive style, and Baryshnikov triumphed in such signature roles as Apollo, Prodigal Son, and Rubies. Robbins did, however, create Opus 19: The Dreamer for Baryshnikov and NYCB favorite Patricia McBride. In 1980, he became Artistic Director of American Ballet Theatre and his role changed from performer to director.
Nevertheless, his fascination with the new has stood him in good stead. While his technique has lost its flash, his mastery of gesture and stagecraft remains compelling. As he observed, "It doesn't matter how high you lift your leg. The technique is about transparency, simplicity and making an earnest attempt.” The White Oak Project was formed to create original work for older dancers. In a run ending just short of his 60th birthday in 2007, he appeared in a production of four short plays by Samuel Beckett staged by avant-garde director JoAnne Akalaitis. Joining discipline and charisma, he has fashioned an exceptionally long career and cast a long shadow over the contemporary dance world.
In 2000, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. He has received three Honorary Degrees; on September 28, 2007 from Shenandoah Conservatory of Shenandoah University, on May 11, 2006, from New York University, and on May 23, 2008 from Montclair State University.
For the duration of the 2006 Summer, he went on tour with Hell's Kitchen Dance, which was sponsored by the Baryshnikov Arts Center. Featuring works by Baryshnikov Arts Center residents Azsure Barton and Benjamin Millipied, the company toured the United States and Spain.
In late August 2007 Baryshnikov performed Mats Ek's Place (original Swedish title, Ställe) with Ana Laguna at Dansens Hus in Stockholm. He has been quoted to say "dancing is living".
Film and television
Baryshnikov made his American television dancing debut in 1976, on the PBS program In Performance Live from Wolf Trap. During the Christmas season of 1977, CBS brought his highly acclaimed American Ballet Theatre production of Tchaikovsky's classic ballet The Nutcracker to television, and it has remained to this day the most popular and most often shown television production of the work, at least in the U.S. In addition to Baryshnikov in the title role, Gelsey Kirkland, Alexander Minz and many members of the American Ballet Theatre also starred. The production was videotaped in Canada. After being shown twice by CBS, it moved to PBS, where it was shown annually every Christmas season for many years, and still is by some PBS stations. It was first released on DVD by MGM/UA. The remastered DVD of the performance, issued by Kultur Video in 2004, is a bestseller during the Christmas season. The DVD has now been released in the UK by Digital Classics.
Although Tchaikovsky's ballet has been presented on TV many times in many different versions, the Baryshnikov version is one of only two to be nominated for an Emmy Award. The other one was Mark Morris' "The Hard Nut," Morris's intentionally exaggerated and satirical version of the ballet.
Baryshnikov also performed in two Emmy-winning television specials, one on ABC and one on CBS, in which he danced to music from Broadway and Hollywood, respectively. During the 1970s and 80s, he appeared many times with American Ballet Theatre on Live from Lincoln Center and Great Performances. Over the years, he has also appeared on several telecasts of the Kennedy Center Honors.
Baryshnikov performed in his first film role soon after arriving in New York. He portrayed the character Yuri Kopeikine, a famous Russian womanizing ballet dancer, in the 1977 film The Turning Point, for which he received an Oscar nomination. Additionally, he co-starred with Gregory Hines and Isabella Rossellini in the 1985 film White Nights, choreographed by Twyla Tharp, and the 1987 film Dancers. In the last season of Sex and the City, he played a Russian artist, Aleksandr Petrovsky, who woos Carrie Bradshaw relentlessly and takes her to Paris. He co-starred in Company Business (1991) with Gene Hackman.
On November 2, 2006, Baryshnikov and chef Alice Waters were featured on an episode of the Sundance Channel's original series Iconoclasts. The two have a lifelong friendship. They discussed their lifestyles, sources of inspiration, and social projects that make them unique. During the program, Alice Waters visited Baryshnikov's Arts Center in New York City. The Hell's Kitchen Dance tour brought him to Berkeley to visit Alice Waters' restaurant Chez Panisse.
On July 17, 2007, the PBS News Hour with Jim Lehrer featured a profile of Baryshnikov and his Arts Center
Baryshnikov has a daughter, Aleksandra Baryshnikov (born 1981), from his relationship with actress Jessica Lange. When Baryshnikov and Lange met, he was able to speak very little English. They communicated in French instead.
Baryshnikov is in a long-term relationship with former ballerina Lisa Rinehart. They have had three children together: Peter (born July 7, 1989), Anna (born May 22, 1992), and Sofia (born May 24, 1994). In an interview with Larry King, Baryshnikov said that he didn't believe in marriage because the commitment that people make to each other didn't have anything to do with a legal marriage. He stated that he wasn't religious, so standing in front of an altar would not mean anything to him.
Baryshnikov currently owns a home at the Punta Cana Resort and Club in the Dominican Republic.