December 10, 2014

Mikhail Baryshnikov: First Ballet, Now Photography


I HAVE loved Mikhail Baryshnikov for years. Not in any real sense, of course, but as someone privileged to have witnessed many of his extraordinary performances on stage, I have had the chance to fall in love with his charisma, his charm and his stunningly precise and absolute way of moving. He may be 66 now but time has done nothing to still those qualities. I know, because I’m about to be bewitched by Baryshnikov again. 
We are in London, in a West End gallery where the ballet superstar, modern dance icon, film star, stage actor and television leading man is showing me his photographs. Not holiday snaps or family portraits but electrifying, large-scale digital images that seek to capture the act of dancing. He is in London to launch Dancing Away, the first UK exhibition of his photography, which opened at Contini Art UK last month.

Baryshnikov’s CV is testament to one of the most remarkable careers of the 20th century. He was the Kirov dancer who defected to the west in 1974, who conquered the international dance world, who performed with the top companies and worked with more famous choreographers than anyone else. His career as a dancer spanned more than 30 years and brought him fame on screen and a near hysterical presence in the gossip pages, thanks to his liaisons with a succession of actresses and ballerinas. Dressed for our meeting in a natty suit, he looks as if he could have stepped straight out of TV’s Sex and the City, in which he played Carrie’s Russian artist boyfriend. Everywhere he goes in the world, people still remember him as that elusive rogue, Aleksandr Petrovsky. He doesn’t mind — “at least they are remembering me for something”.

Yet he’s more interested now in what’s coming out of his trusty digital camera, which has captured thousands of images of dance and dancers. Rigorously edited and then blown up and printed on French watercolour paper, the chosen few present a vibrant array of the body in motion — ethereal pictures that have the look of painterly impressionism. His work doesn’t come cheap: a single print can set you back a staggering £32,000 ($60,000) and you will need a lot of wall on which to display it properly.

Transition is more important to Baryshnikov’s lens than posturing, he wants people to see the moment just before and just after a particular movement. With his use of long exposures, some of the images are so blurred, the metaphorical brushstrokes so fluid, that the specifics of choreography and individuality are almost undetect­able. “I’m inspired by some of the people who pioneered this kind of photography, notably the Russian Alexey Brodovitch, and later on the American Irving Penn,” Baryshnikov says. “They were photographers who tried to depict movement. There is nothing wrong with crisp focused pictures, and there are lots of lovely ballet books all done in a very slick style. The image of a woman a la seconde or in arabesque can be very beautiful, but it’s not what I am trying to do.

“My work has a touch of surrealism. For me, a picture is a memory of something; I am looking for that one moment to remind me why I still love to see dance.”

He has been taking photos for years, of his family, of his extensive travels, but it was the arrival of digital technology that convinced him to start photographing his own art form. “I started to experiment and develop my own style. Digital technology makes it easier to capture movement; what’s difficult for me is that the light is changing all the time. People like Penn photographed their subjects in a studio, that’s never the set-up for me. I only photograph in available light because I try to be a fly on the wall.”

He takes me through some of the images on his laptop — “here you see traces of their previous movement; they are on a journey”. There are photographs of dancers from New York City Ballet, from the Mark Morris, Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham troupes; tango and samba dancers in South America — “half of my images are done on the streets”. He is attracted to explosions of colour, from deep violets to vibrant reds, and stylistically his photographs are clearly indebted to a range of artists, from Matisse to the Russian constructivists.

Is this a vanity project? “No, it’s not. I take this very seriously. This is not a hobby. I always travel with a camera in my hands and make room in my schedule to take pictures. It keeps me busy, it keeps my eye sharp and it’s as hard work as anything I do.”

Baryshnikov may spend hours behind a camera but he’s still happy to put himself out there in the theatrical spotlight. His career as an actor began in 1977 when he appeared in The Turning Point, Hollywood’s classic backstage bitchfest dance movie, playing a lothario ballet dancer with a heavy Russian accent (a part many believed was based on Baryshnikov’s colourful reputation with the opposite sex). He earned his dramatic stripes with a 1989 Broadway production of Steven Berkoff’s take on Kafka’s Metamorphosis and followed that up with plays by Samuel Beckett.


Last year he starred in Robert Wilson’s production of The Old Woman at the Manchester International Festival and he’s working on another project with the irreverent American theatre director. This time it’s a one-man show about the diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky, the great Ballets Russes dancer who by the age of 30 had deteriorated into the debilitating mental illness that plagued the rest of his life. Nijinsky’s diary, written in 1919, records his descent into madness. “It’s the diary of a very disturbed and very wonderful person,” Baryshnikov says, “and the manifestation of an artist.” The resulting show will be seen in Milan next summer. “I like to try everything. And I have always loved the theatre, it has been my passion for the past 15 years. Dancers or actors, we are all stage animals. Yes, it makes you very nervous of failure, but in my case the more scared I get, the greater the desire to perform. I like to put myself in discomfort because somehow that excites me.”

Baryshnikov continues to dance, working recently with Mark Morris, with whom he founded the innovative White Oak Dance Project in 1990. It toured for a dozen years, presenting a fascinating repertoire of new modern dance works and historic revivals. His main job, though, is running the Baryshnikov Arts Centre, a creative laboratory and theatre complex on West 37th Street in New York (he lives just outside the city), which he opened in 2005. “I started a little foundation to help people in very modest ways, to support artists at any stage of their career. Not just dancers, but theatre, music and visual art people too. In the beginning it was very small scale, and somehow we raised the money and we built it. But I never knew it would get so big.” He uses the proceeds from his photographic sales to help fund his flourishing centre.

At 66, how does he handle the ageing process? “Actually, I’m having a better time now. I am more in control of my emotional life, I know how to concentrate better. I still go up and down and get frustrated with myself and with people around me, but I know how to work better than even 10 years ago. Life is full of possibilities as an artist.

“I have stayed healthy too. I did damage my body when I was younger, and I had 12 or 13 operations — shoulder, knee and this and that — but I was smart enough to take enough time to recover fully afterwards and I had extraordinary doctors; I was always lucky. I have no problem with my body now.”

The man who was once the most famous ballet dancer in the world and who ran American Ballet Theatre in the 1980s no longer follows the classical scene. “I rarely attend classical ballet, it’s not where my heart is; my interest is in more experimental work. Do I have any desire to influence ballet? No, not at all. I am approached every second year to take over a company here and there — you must be kidding. I didn’t leave one company to take over another one.”

It has been 40 years since he escaped from his KGB minders while on tour with a group of Soviet dancers in Toronto. He has never once gone back to Russia. “I have been to Latvia, where I was born, but not Russia where I lived for 10 years. There is a reason for that which I don’t want to discuss because it’s personal. But it’s very sad what’s happening in Russia today. I thought the country was going in the right direction with certain reforms, but what’s happening now is a regression. I would rather not talk about it — it’s too upsetting.”

Family is important to Baryshnikov, who lost his mother when he was 11 (she committed suicide). He has four children (one with his former partner, the actress Jessica Lange, and three with his wife, the former dancer Lisa Rinehart) and two grandchildren.

“None of my kids studied ballet, and we rarely speak about dance at home.”

I ask him if he feels Russian, or indeed Latvian, and am surprised by his answer. “I lived in Latvia until I was 16, then spent the next 10 years in Russia and then I left. In Latvia I was an outsider because my father was in the Russian military and we were an occupying force in Latvia so that wasn’t too comfortable for us. But I was not comfortable in Russia, where I was perceived as a provincial Latvian looking west all the time.

“I would say that as a state of mind I am an American. I would never speak English as my mother tongue, of course, and I will always have my accent. But even with all the horrific things happening in the United States — the poverty and the racial problems — I admire the tenacity of the country and I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”

By Debra Craine

With thanks to The Australian
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