My God, he’s adorable,” gushed a senator’s wife as dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, 30, made his entry into the jammed reception hall of Washington’s Kennedy Center. She wasn’t alone: 1,100 other sophisticated patrons (including 300 crashers) pushed and shoved to get a glimpse of the sinewy blond dancer after the world premiere of his newest ballet, Don Quixote. Dressed in black suede jacket and boots, his face ashen with fatigue, “Misha” was engulfed by admirers—mostly female. He sipped a Heineken, graciously scribbled autographs and accepted congratulations. He stayed just long enough not to offend anyone, and then slipped downstairs to his dressing room. When he finally left the theater, long after midnight, a crowd of young girls was still waiting at the stage door.
In less than four years Baryshnikov has not only emerged as the world’s finest classical dancer but also leaped out of the esoteric world of ballet into pop-idol status. He is the Travolta of high culture. Choreographers clamor to create for him. His performances spark a lively black-market traffic in “Misha tickets.” He captivated nonballet audiences and won an Oscar nomination for his nonchalant portrayal of Yuri, the Russian heart-breaker, in The Turning Point. And, like Yuri, he has cut a romantic swath through the ranks of the American Ballet Theatre. “We all know his relationships don’t last,” says one former ballerina girlfriend. “But when he pursues you, who can resist?”
Baryshnikov, despite his obvious resemblance to his screen character, refuses to feel typecast or rotten to the corps. “I am not Yuri,” he protests. “I make no promises. I am not ready for that yet. But,” he grins, “I adore women! I just don’t know why my private life has become some sort of symbol. I’m not the first straight dancer nor the last. Anyway, it has nothing to do with art.”
Anyone who observes Misha throw himself into rehearsal agrees—his art is foremost. For Don Quixote, an instant critical success that moved to New York this week, he is both director and star. He had arrived in Washington only days before the premiere, wiped out from a 17-week tour, to face production meetings which often lasted till 3 a.m. The company was ready for a full run-through onstage only two days before the opening.
Despite his work overload, Baryshnikov religiously took part in the company class each morning before tackling his own dancing and choreographing commitments. Speaking in emphatic, accented English, he instructed the company from an orchestra seat in the middle of the darkened auditorium. Occasionally he broke into Russian to explain the action to fellow émigré Alexander Minz, who dances the title role. Throughout the four-hour rehearsals Baryshnikov rarely lost patience. “Once more, girls, please,” he asked politely. His concentration never wavered. “It is not good…it is terrible,” he began teasingly. “Let’s try again. Count, please. No, you are too late. Once more. Sancho, Where’s your beard? No, no, don’t throw the cape, swirl it. That’s better. Good, fine, fine. It is now good.”
Suddenly it was time for his solo. Throwing down a pilfered cigarette, Misha bounded onstage. Without a warmup, he whirled into a series of whiplash leaps that brought spontaneous applause from the company dancers. Unlike many stars who walk through their steps in rehearsal, Baryshnikov danced every step each time around. “I often don’t intend to,” he says, “but the dancing takes over.” The other dancers, tired from evening performances, suddenly came alive. Says ABT director Lucia Chase: “Everybody dances better when he’s around.”
By Russian standards, Baryshnikov came to ballet late. Born in Riga, Latvia, the son of an engineer and a dressmaker, he took his first lesson at 12 (most serious students start at 8) and was accepted into the local ballet school. At 15, while on a school tour of Leningrad, he saw his first rehearsal at the famed Kirov school. Impulsively, he approached its revered master, Alexander Pushkin, and asked to join his class. Pushkin felt Baryshnikov’s leg muscles and asked him to jump in the air. Baryshnikov recalls “knocking things around like a young goat,” but he was accepted. From then on, dancing became Misha’s total life. He boarded at the school for three years, immersed not only in classical dance but also in ballet’s literature, acting, mime, makeup and fencing. At 18 he graduated and joined the company immediately as a soloist, a remarkable feat anywhere.
Russians idolize their dancers and Baryshnikov was soon famous and secure, with a large public following, his own apartment, a country dacha and a housekeeper. Yet he longed to dance more than was required by the large Russian companies and longed for roles outside the rigid classical repertoire. “If only they had let me experiment,” he once said wistfully, “I never would have left.”
Since his dramatic defection while on tour in Canada, Baryshnikov has been able to experiment freely and to dance whatever roles he fancies. Sixteen new works, by such modern choreographers as Alvin Ailey and Twyla Tharp, have been created for him. He has mastered 30 new roles of astonishing variety. Selflessly generous with his time, he often spends extra hours instructing or rehearsing colleagues. “I am only doing what I dreamed of in Russia,” he says. “For a dancer 30 is like 50. I don’t want to have to quit dancing to find myself sorry for what I haven’t done.”
His attitude has won over his normally cynical and competitive colleagues. American-trained dancers in the past have often resented the intrusion of highly paid foreign stars, but Misha has endeavored to blend in. When necessary, Baryshnikov waits his turn to take a shower. After a recent guest appearance with London’s Royal Ballet he sent champagne to the entire corps de ballet—then joined them to help celebrate.
For all his fame and money—he is the highest paid dancer in the world—Baryshnikov remains a loner in his adopted land. Home in Manhattan is a rented one-bedroom apartment on Park Avenue. No longer fearful of abduction, he is steadily widening his coterie but is still most comfortable in a Russian émigré circle or at small dinner parties. He admits to “too much drinking and smoking” and addiction to spicy Szechwan food, Mozart and Broadway musicals. When he drops in at one of New York’s discos, he can, not surprisingly, hustle or salsa with anyone in the house.
Recently Baryshnikov has been linked with Leslie Browne, his dancing partner in The Turning Point, Liza Minnelli and actress Candy (Handle with Care) Clark. “It is silly,” he says irritably. “I take a girl to dinner and—big story. It is overdone, this reputation. I should be so lucky.” Then he grins. “Write that down. That is a good Jewish expression. I should be so lucky.”