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By PATRICIA COHEN
Photograph by Nicole Bengiveno
New York Times
October 5, 2011


Among the hundreds of video recordings that Mikhail Baryshnikov has collected over the decades are a handful that show him rehearsing with the titans of dance George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. But perhaps the most treasured is a cloudy black-and-white clip of the 16-year-old Baryshnikov at a lesson with his revered teacher Alexander Pushkin at the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet in St. Petersburg.

“This man just made me as a dancer,” Mr. Baryshnikov explains in another video, an interview from 1974, when he defected to Canada from the Soviet Union. Pushkin, he tells the translator in Russian, was a magician and a father figure.

These videotapes are part of a cache of personal recordings, photographs, documents, letters and scrapbooks that Mr. Baryshnikov, 63, has donated to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. “It’s my whole life,” he said of the 35 boxes of materials that he and his wife, Lisa Rinehart, packed up.

There is his small red Vaganova yearbook from 1967, candid snapshots and stacks of fan letters from celebrities like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Frank Sinatra and Kirk Douglas, Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and a long list of choreographers like Trisha Brown, who wrote, “Gravity leaves no fingerprints on you.”

A legal memo from 1974 advised Mr. Baryshnikov that there was “no way of guaranteeing your safety or freedom” during a visit home, while other papers shed light on both the power and vulnerability of a new émigré artist with his circle of admiring benefactors and his initial dependence on a few handlers.

But of most interest are the nearly 650 videotapes of Mr. Baryshnikov’s glorious dancing. In the earliest of them he is 11 or 12, spinning across the floor in black shorts and shirt at a school in Riga, Latvia, where he was born. At one point he is joined by his towheaded friend and classmate Alexander Godunov, who defected to the United States in 1979 and died in 1995.

A few years later — after Pushkin chose him to be his student as if he were “selecting a puppy from the litter,” as Mr. Baryshnikov has put it — this compact boy had developed a dancer’s body. His thigh muscles are so thick, he looks as if he were wearing jodhpurs instead of tights.

There is footage from Mr. Baryshnikov’s first international ballet competition, in 1969, and a televised performance from 1971, in which he starred in “The Tale about a Serf Nikishka.” Later, in New York, Balanchine models the movements he wants Mr. Baryshnikov to imitate in “Prodigal Son,” and Robbins coaches the star and his partner Natalia Makarova in a dance he created specifically for them. In 1990 Mr. Baryshnikov, shirtless and in blue tights, rehearses one of Graham’s dances and then kneels before the choreographer, who was 96, and asks, “Martha, what do you think?”

Mr. Baryshnikov’s hunger for artistic freedom, which inspired him to defect as a young man, has continually pushed him to experiment in dance, as well as theater, film, television and photography. Two hundred of the tapes detail the dozen years he spent with the experimental White Oak Dance Project, the group, since disbanded, that he founded in 1990 with Mark Morris.

Seated in his office at Baryshnikov Arts Center on West 37th Street in Manhattan, where he is surrounded by paintings and sketches of dancers and costumes, Mr. Baryshnikov said he donated the archives so young artists starting out could study how dancers and choreographers work.

Did he consider selling the collection? “Sell? Sell what?” he asked. “Your life? I do that all the time onstage.”

Jan Schmidt, curator of the library’s Jerome Robbins Dance Division, said Mr. Baryshnikov’s superstar status would draw scholars, students and the general public to the collection. She estimated it would take three years for the library to copy the videotapes into a digital format and to catalog all the material. Curators are assembling a brief collection of clips to show donors at its Nov. 1 dance division fund-raiser.

Mr. Baryshnikov said he accumulated the material over time, as if “on autopilot.”

Now, with the boxes safely delivered to the library, “I feel a weight from my shoulders.” he said, adding, “In the first part of life, you accumulate things. In the second part of life, you get rid of it.”

© 2011 The New York Times Company

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