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Spotlight: Mikhail Baryshnikov

It's Spotlight Saturday! This week's focus is ballet great Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Mikhail Nikolayevich Baryshnikov, also known by his nickname 'Misha', was born January 27, 1948, in Latvia, then part of the Soviet Union. His parents, Alexandra and Nikolay Baryshnikov, were Russian. Baryshnikov started ballet classes at the age of 9. In 1964, he was accepted into the Vaganova School, in what is now St. Petersburg. From the beginning, he showed great promise, winning the top prize in the junior division of the Varna International Ballet Competition.

He joined the Mariinsky Theatre's Kirov Ballet in 1967. For his debut, he performed in the Peasant pas de deux from Giselle. Baryshnikov possessed great stage presence, and was soon known for his perfect technique. Several Soviet choreographers created pieces especially for him, such as Leonid Jakobson's 1969 Vestris. Baryshnikov became known for his intense portrayal of Albrecht in Giselle.

In 1974, the Kirov Ballet went on tour in Canada. On June 29, Baryshnikov defected, seeking political asylum in Toronto. Later, he would reveal that the defection had been planned during the company's 1970 tour of London, by his American friend Christina Berlin. Baryshnikov joined the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, announcing that he would not be returning to the USSR. His first major performance following his defection was a televised production of La Sylphide with the National Ballet of Canada.

Baryshnikov moved to the United States, where he was the principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre between 1974 and 1978. His partner during that period was Gelsey Kirkland. He worked periodically with the New York City Ballet and as a guest artist for the Royal Ballet; he also toured around the world with various different ballet and modern dance companies for about a year.

Baryshnikov with partner Natalia Makarova

The eighteen months Baryshnikov spent with the New York City Ballet brought with it a rare opportunity. Gifted choreographer George Balanchine was notoriously picky about the guest dancers he chose to work with; he had previously rejected both Nureyev and Makarova. Instead, 'Mr. B', as he was known, devoted his full attention to the New York City Ballet. He did, however, consider Baryshnikov an acceptable addition to the company. Though Balanchine never created a specific piece for Baryshnikov, he did coach him in his distinctive style. As a result, Baryshnikov triumphed in Balanchine's roles of Apollo, The Prodigal Son, and in Rubies, part of the extended piece Jewels.

Baryshnikov being coached by George Balanchine

Several works were created for him by modern choreographers, including Sir Frederick Ashton's 1980 Rhapsody, and two pieces by Jerome Robbins - the 1979 Opus 19: The Dreamer in which Baryshnikov partnered Patricia McBride, and Other Dances, in which he partnered Natalia Makarova. One of the reasons for Baryshnikov's defection had been his fascination with the new styles of ballet and dance that he had seen Western choreographers creating. Soviet Russia was strictly 19th century in its approach to ballet and shunned such choreography. Within his first two years in the United States, Baryshnikov danced for no less than 13 modern choreographers.

In 1980, Baryshnikov returned to the American Ballet Theatre as its Artistic Director, a position he held for nearly ten years. He left in 1989, when the company went behind his back to fire his second-in-command, Charles French. From 1990 to 2002, he was Artistic Director for the White Oak Dance Project, a company which he founded with Mark Morris. In 2005, he launched the Baryshnikov Arts Centre in New York.

Baryshnikov's list of honours is an extensive one. He was made a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1999; he was awarded a National Medal of Arts in 2000; he has three honorary degrees, from the universities of New York, Shenandoah, and Montclair; he won the Prix Benoise de la Danse for lifetime achievement in 2003; and he received the Vilcek Prize in Dance in 2012.

Since leaving the American Ballet Theatre, Baryshnikov has been involved in a variety of projects. He went on tour to the United States and Spain in 2006 with Hell's Kitchen Dance, which was sponsored by the Baryshnikov Arts Centre. In 2007, he appeared in a short run of several plays by Samuel Beckett. With Ana Laguna, he performed Mats Ek's Place in Stockholm in 2007. He has also performed in Israel three times: with the White Oak Dance Project in the Roman amphitheatre in Caesarea in 1996, in another performance with Ana Laguna in 2010, and in a 2011 run of nine performances of In Paris in Tel Aviv.

Baryshnikov with partner Gelsey Kirkland, 'The Nutcracker', 1977

Baryshnikov is also notably involved in film and television. The ABT's 1977 performance of The Nutcracker, in which he stars, is still extremely popular every Christmas season. He appeared many times on Live from Lincoln Centre, Great Performances, and in telecasts of the Kennedy Centre Honors. Baryshnikov's film repertoire includes The Turning Point (1977), for which he was nominated for an Oscar, White Nights (1985), Dancers (1987), and Company Business (1991). He has an uncredited appearance in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014), as the Russian Interior Minister. In 2015, Baryshnikov appeared in a commercial for the clothing designer Rag & Bone, which features his love for modern dance.

Baryshnikov with Liza Minnelli in 'Baryshnikov on Broadway', 1981

Baryshnikov's fascination with modern dance has helped to drive the ballet world forwards. One of the greatest dancers of all time, Baryshnikov realised the visions of many modern American choreographers and introduced an entirely new set of 'classics' to the public. He once said, 'It doesn't matter how high you lift your leg. The technique is about transparency, simplicity, and making an earnest attempt.'

Thanks for reading! Next week, the Spotlight will be on Marie Taglioni!

- Selene

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