January 12, 1981 12:00 PM

Misha calls her impulsive. ‘I go for the moment,’ she admits

Working for Mikhail Baryshnikov can be brutal. Since taking over as artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre four months ago, he has fired two stars and is feuding with a third. But that hasn’t intimidated Cynthia Harvey, the 23-year-old brunette he has chosen as his new partner. While rehearsing a tender pas de deux recently, he instructed her to “whisper something sweet in my ear.” As the music swelled, she murmured, “Can I have a raise?” She didn’t get one (her salary is $500 a week), but she has Misha’s number. “When he’s dancing with you,” she reports, “he really stares into your eyes. I just look right back!”

Harvey takes his criticism good-naturedly. During one rehearsal Baryshnikov complained that her arms flopped like “dead chicken wings.” She flapped and cackled back to her starting point and did it again his way.

Despite the needling, the 5’4″, 106-pound Harvey has become the swan-necked symbol of the new classicism that Baryshnikov hopes to create at ABT. He has decreed that the company, which once spotlighted stars like himself, will henceforth stress pure dance instead of personalities.

To prove it, Baryshnikov did not hesitate to fire Gelsey Kirkland, 28, and her live-in beau, Patrick Bissell, 23, when they missed dress rehearsal on the eve of the company’s season debut last month. Kirkland, perhaps the finest lyric ballerina in the West, had been Baryshnikov’s partner and lover six years ago, and she was set to return to ABT after a year’s absence. Meanwhile Bissell had enjoyed a swift rise to principal dancer. The two were frequently late for rehearsal; on this occasion, Misha had had enough.

The season opened at Washington’s Kennedy Center with substitutes for the pair, and critics cheered. On the second night a distraught Kirkland showed up backstage in jeans. The company scuttlebutt is that Bissell will be rehired, but possibly not Gelsey. (Meanwhile Natalia Makarova, who walked out when Baryshnikov was named director, has reluctantly signed to do guest appearances.)

In contrast to such mercurial stars, Cynthia Harvey is a determined workhorse. The daughter of a milkman turned insurance salesman, she grew up in Marin County, Calif. and was enrolled in dancing school at 9 by her Mexican mother, an office manager. At 14, Harvey began winning ballet scholarships. Her commitment to dance soon made her an outcast at San Marin High. “When other kids were into the drug culture, I was into the yogurt culture,” she jokes. At 16, she was accepted by the ABT.

In the mid-’70s its corps de ballet seemed a dead end for Americans. With defectors arriving from the Soviet Union, few U.S. dancers were promoted. But Harvey volunteered to help Baryshnikov create the choreography for his Don Quixote in 1977—a long, tiring job—and she was later cast as a flower girl. “I think he recognized my potential as a workaholic,” she says. During the 1978 season she subbed for Cynthia Gregory and Mar-tine van Hamel in Quixote to glowing reviews and was promoted to soloist. After hurting her hip in a performance of La Bayadère last spring, she refused to cancel her next appearance and as a result tore ligaments in her foot. She was offstage for three months.

Now healthy again, Harvey lives with her divorced mother on the edge of New York’s Spanish Harlem. Cynthia dates—”whenever I meet someone I like.” Her social life has not included Misha. “I’ve always wanted to get ahead on my ability,” she explains. “I’ve done it the American way, through hard work and endurance.” This has warded off backbiting and jealousy in the company. Instead, says Harvey, “Other dancers walk up to me and say: ‘You deserve it.’ ”

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