“Here, I’ll show you how it happened,” says the smiling young Russian dancer as he bounds from his chair and prepares to execute a grand jeté” across the living room of a friend’s New York penthouse apartment.
Then, responding to the horrified outcries of several friends, Mikhail “Misha” Baryshnikov mutters, “Okay, okay” and returns to his seat. The last time Baryshnikov attempted that step was in February on the stage of the Sydney, Australia opera house during the pas de deux from Don Quixote. Suddenly and inexplicably, after a high jump, he fell. “I came down on my left leg,” Baryshnikov recalls, “and my ankle went under. I could hear the sound of bones crushing.” He suffered a severely sprained left ankle—the kind of nightmare injury that haunts dancers and athletes. It was the most terrifying moment for the former Kirov Ballet star since his dramatic defection from the Soviet Union in Toronto last June (PEOPLE, July 22, 1974).
“It was terrible, frightening,” says the 26-year-old dancer, who had never been seriously hurt in his 16 years of dancing. “I’m still not certain exactly what did happen,” he says slowly. “I was in good condition—even a good mood!” Though feeling intense pain, Baryshnikov arose immediately and continued to dance. “I even invented a step to keep going,” he says proudly, “pretty nervy, wasn’t it?”
To continue was not only nervy but dangerous, and a testimony to Baryshnikov’s remarkable artistry. In a switch that few dancers could have executed, Baryshnikov reversed the final series of double and triple pirouettes that complete the ballet, shifting his weight to his uninjured right leg. Only then did he dare a glance at his left foot. “It was blowing up in front of me,” he says, still shuddering at the memory. “What flashed through my mind was terrible fear—and the thought of all the performances I would have to cancel.”
Baryshnikov froze where he finished, remained there through two curtain calls, and then fainted. Still, he managed to take note of the reaction of his partner and close friend Natalia Makarova (also a Kirov defector) before he passed out. “She,” he says with a grin, “was hysterical.”
The prescription for Baryshnikov was a minimum five weeks’ complete rest, swimming and warm Jacuzzi baths. “Actually, I had wanted a vacation,” says Misha, “but not exactly that way.” In Sydney, during the first week after the accident—when “my morale was at its lowest”—he learned to use crutches while the swelling began to subside. He then headed for Florida, to recuperate at White Oak, a lush 5,500-acre plantation straddling the Florida-Georgia border. It is owned by paper company executive Howard Gilman, whose apartment the dancer shares when in New York. Never idle, Baryshnikov began to exercise while still on crutches and work at shrinking his slight new paunch. At the plantation he strolled through the woods, fished and took his first riding lessons—a risky pastime for a ballet dancer. “After three lessons he saddled up and cantered away,” says Gilman, “and my heart was in my mouth.”
Two weeks ago Baryshnikov returned to New York—to a rigorous steak and apple diet and to the hard work of retraining his leg. In rehearsal classes, he observed, “it was like being a student again. Now, I’ll never take a simple thing like walking on two feet for granted.”
This week Baryshnikov will perform for the first time since his accident—in Paris for France’s President Giscard d’Estaing. “After a fall like that,” he admits, “there is a certain psychological barrier to be rubbed out; but I’m in shape, physically and mentally.” Gone are the dark circles beneath his eyes and the frightened demeanor he displayed when he first appeared in public last summer. Indeed, Baryshnikov seems not only to have faced up to the psychological problems of his accident, but to the more serious trauma of leaving his homeland.
Today Baryshnikov is quietly self-possessed and relaxed (although not sufficiently relaxed to quit smoking). “I think I have reached an equilibrium,” he says. “The shock has worn off but I still have moods. After all, I left a lot—my home, friends, theater, my dog…just the air of Leningrad. There is nothing quite so beautiful, nothing I miss so much.”
Lionized by Western critics, Misha finds his success “very pleasant, naturally…but it is also very bitter. No one should ever be called a defector,” he says quietly. “I’d like to be called a cultural exchange.” The dancer notes that in Russia “things are changing…but then a dancer can’t wait.” Asked if he would be allowed to call privately upon the Bolshoi dancers who will visit the U.S. this season, he shakes his head sadly: “I doubt it.”
Naive at first about contracts and fees—”Misha didn’t realize he could say no,” says one friend—the dancer now has the acumen of the Sol Hurok organization behind him. Observers say he will command up to $3,000 per performance and will dance perhaps 100 times in the coming year.
His new fortunes have not spoiled his rather impish sense of humor. Of the ever present female balletomaniacs who swarm around him and other dancers, he says deadpan: “It’s nice that everyone has something meaningful to enrich their lives.”
One lovely young woman, dancer Gelsey Kirkland, does frequent Baryshnikov’s apartment while he’s in New York, but they insist their relationship is professional, not romantic. Misha gives credit for his improving English not only to television, but to American girls. What does he discuss with them? “Oh,” he replies, “I let them do all the talking.”