He can be aloof, even sulky and terse. And don’t expect him to discuss his 1974 defection from the Soviet Union. That’s the usual rap on Mikhail Baryshnikov, the greatest living dancer. But it’s way off. Quite the contrary, he is effusive, humorous, fast-witted and—unless you want to match pirouettes with him—unintimidating. Now 37, the director (and part-time star) of the American Ballet Theatre in New York takes a casual approach to dressing for his executive position (jeans, T-shirts, boots). He has expressive, soft blue eyes. They dart and widen theatrically as his thoughts race ahead of his improving English—often with amusing results that give his personality a comic, unpredictable flair. And he will now discuss his defection, since his life, to some extent, parallels the plot of the new arch-patriotic film White Nights. In it, Baryshnikov plays Rodchenko, a Russian ballet star who eight years after his defection gets trapped inside the U.S.S.R. when a plane taking him to Tokyo crash-lands in Siberia. The film tracks Rodchenko’s struggles with a black disaffected tap dancer (Gregory Hines) who has chosen to live in the Soviet Union. Baryshnikov now separates the facts of his defection (while touring Canada as a guest star of a Bolshoi Ballet troupe) from cinematic fiction and reflects on his longing, even now, for his homeland.
I was insecure at first about the film and I’m still surprised I got into it. But this is a Hollywood film, of course, a political romantic thriller, not documentary—a human, not political statement. But you feel you are in Russia. We shot scenes in Helsinki and northern Finland. It comes closer than anything else I’ve seen on the screen and it’s really precise. Surprisingly it was closest I had been to Russia in 11 years, but I was not too nervous or homesick.
I am dancer, not actor. I’m not yet used to this proportion of screen images, seeing my eyes blown up 20 feet. I’m very comfortable and objective with looking myself in mirror as dancer. I know What’s good, bad and the best I can do. But in film, I have lot of complexes about can I do this or not. I saw the film before it opened with some friends and I was nervous, I tell you. The toughest part of making it was to watch it. I had three shots of Stolichnaya Vodka and I was finally ready.
The film was a slight reflection of a possibility, but it is not story of my life. Still, that’s why studio commit to do it with me. I am Russian dancer who left his country and it is dance picture. Nobody yet asked me to play Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment or The Idiot. I would love that one day. That would be big risk.
Still, the screenwriters were always asking: What would you do? How would you behave? And all the time I’m saying it’s not my life. You feel stripped in front of millions of people.
Those who know me say Rodchenko, my character, isn’t me. I’m much moodier, less political and cynical, and I’m crazier. The rest is just the same. Is the plot realistic? It’s difficult to know how I’d behave if I crash-landed in Siberia. I’d probably be so scared I wouldn’t function or talk at all. I would probably collapse. What the Soviets would do with me would depend entirely on the political situation at the time. It’s a strong possibility the Soviets, not wanting a scandal, would let me go because I’m too well-known. I’ve never considered going back there to live. I’m not that crazy. I myself would definitely avoid a flight with a stopover in Moscow or any Soviet city. I would not take the chance. I’m not that crazy.
In Russia I was never a big pain in the butt or political dissident. Also I was never convicted and sentenced as a criminal, like Rodchenko. I was a civil servant. The Kirov was sponsored by the government. I had all the privileges and material things I wanted. Enough money, a car, beautiful apartment. I was right there next to sons of ministers in the elite. But I couldn’t travel abroad when I wanted, I couldn’t work with people I wanted. You have to express enthusiasm and be an example to youth, though I was not in the Party or anything like that. I had arguments with the system, I cheated where I could, anything goes, pretending to agree with the system and to be loyal.
These are my observations now from a distance, from 11 years in the U.S. It was a spontaneous decision which I made the day before I actually defected. I was 26, it was now or never for me. I was at the peak of my career. Time was running out. The creative mood of ballet was depressing. I was not free to fly, in every sense. Years earlier I saw how. My dream in 1969 was to see and dance in Paris as a guest with the Baku Ballet. It was such a privilege to go. I prayed for this, and it’s all up to the KGB to sign the documents letting you out. I rehearsed for months, and the morning of the day we were to leave for Paris from Moscow the KGB gave me my passport and told me I was going back to Leningrad instead. Canceled my papers, no explanation. An informant probably said I was a defection risk. I never considered then living in the U.S.
I grew up in Riga, where my father was a high-ranking army officer who specialized in military topography. My mother was an uneducated peasant girl who worked in a clothing shop. She liked ballet and took me to see it when I was a child. She was a warm, wonderful woman. I always saw newspaper cartoons of [American] fat people with gold coins, H-bombs and big cigars. Then we see Kennedy, Kirk Douglas, Spartacus. We see all the time Tarzan series in movies, Marilyn Monroe, Astaire, Cagney, Chaplin.
America I thought was just like Tarzan movies. It’s not real country, you know? Somebody invent it because they have so much money to invent this fantasy. But actually, place doesn’t exist. They are building this for film, then destroying it. Then I started to read Hemingway, Dreiser, Faulkner, Vonnegut, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and American dance magazines later. A very selective process there, what you are allowed to read. The country finally start to materialize in my head somehow. I was hungry for work. And to reach my potential.
I couldn’t put all my brains together and say then why I did it. Emotionally I really cracked. I was empty and depressed. I was alone. I lived with a dancer but we split when the relationship didn’t work after two years. I couldn’t go back.
The defection was like a thriller—with a comic twist. It was arranged secretly through friends. I was running, the getaway car was waiting a few blocks away as we were boarding on the group’s bus. KGB was watching us. It was actually funny. Fans are waiting for me outside the stage door, and I walk out and I start to run, and they start to run after me for autograph. They were laughing, I was running for my life. It was very emotional moment, I tell you.
For years I had nightmares, waking up in cold sweat in middle of night, hearing somebody running after me. It was traumatic, but a relief. I knew it was right.
The theme of this film is politically right wing and patriotic. It reminds me of An Officer and a Gentleman, which was also directed by Taylor Hackford. White Nights is Hackford’s film. I was hired as an actor. But just because I am in the film does not mean I agree with everything in it. Clearly I agree enough with the spirit of the film, since I left Russia and chose life in America. It was not my script. They ask me how it’s done, I say some situations would never happen like in film. I’m saying all the time on the set, “This is not right,” and he’s saying, “Don’t take everything how it is in life. It’s a film. You see very narrow because I have vision as a director.”
We got into fights over small things. Like should actors speak Russian at all? There are several scenes involving Helen Mirren, who plays the woman I loved and left behind, the KGB agent Chaiko (Jerzy Skolimowski) and me in which both English and Russian are used. There is no consistency. Russian is used like salt and pepper. It is maybe not so necessary. The idea of a KGB agent like Chaiko losing control, hitting tables and shouting is more aggressive and theatrical than what a KGB man might be, I thought. But what do I know? When I left I didn’t look back to see how they reacted. Maybe they really do behave just like that.
Taylor Hackford’s choice of the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos in Lisbon for the Kirov dance scenes was a terrific idea because it’s close to actual Maryinsky Theatre where I danced in Leningrad. There is the same feeling of intimacy and magic from the stage as you look up at the rows of loges. I guess it’s like Texas for a cowboy. As I danced the scenes, I remembered perfectly the last time I danced in Leningrad, when I did Giselle years earlier. It was a powerful experience.
Hackford did tons of incredible dance research. But my character carries with him giant cassette and these tapes, so he and Gregory Hines can play it for the dance numbers. All the time it’s on. I never listen in my life to a machine like that, especially the modern stuff like Phil Collins, Lionel Richie, rapping, Michael Jackson. Okay, I listen occasionally, but I don’t collect. Every time somebody have to dance in film, or arrive and leave, the cassette was all the time switching on. It was no big deal, but I felt uncomfortable—would I in reality drag this big box around with me all the time? I laugh and say this was “klyukva”—a Russian word for a very bitter berry. We say “klyukva” for phony. Hackford say, “You don’t understand.” I say, “It’s too much stuff of this music, all the time something music.”
Greg and I were going to try break dancing. I invited break dancers to ABT last spring. I thought maybe one scene I would do in front of Hines break dancing—where I would try to get him pissed off about what he is missing back home. But as dancer, if I do, I do it right. I tried, I tried, I realized I wouldn’t be good. I didn’t want to make fool of myself.
I came up with the idea for the scene where the young ballerinas don’t know who this guy is when he comes into their Kirov class. This is true situation in Russia. Little children don’t know my name. It has been taken from all books, encyclopedias, nothing. Critics and experts never write about me. The books with me in them are removed from libraries, as if I didn’t exist. People send me books. I am sure of this. This is normal—in Russia.
But I can do more for Russian ballet here than they can there with all their Soviet theaters and dances, because my training, my art, my culture, way of thinking, my heart, are all absolutely still Russian. Seeing me is seeing what Russian ballet is all about. And I’ve accomplished much more than I ever thought I would when I first arrived.
I have a loft downtown near the ABT, a country house on the Hudson, where I usually go after work to sleep. I have a wonderful 4-year-old daughter, Aleksandra, with [the actress] Jessica Lange, and I get to see her all the time. It is never enough, of course. I wish the whole situation would be different. She’s a great kid. Jessica and I are still on very good terms, so that’s not an issue with us at all. My daughter helped me through the shooting in London, Scotland and Finland, though I couldn’t have her with me. I was alone and missed her. Thinking of her, remembering the warmth and her needing me, pulled me through difficult moments.
I would love to visit Russia on a tour to many cities—and then of course return here. Balanchine, Stravinsky, Prokofiev—they all went back and returned to America. This is now a dream of my life. I have never seen my father’s grave or, for 11 years, that of my mother. I’m not that sentimental, but these are attachments, bodies of loved ones in the ground, your feet on certain streets of your past, old friends, home. Maybe this was remote possibility before, but not now. Ironically, I probably ruined my last chance by making this movie.