DANCE

Thoroughly modern Misha

Ballet’s Prince of Strides has found new exhilaration in contemporary dance

PATRICIA HLUCHY September 18 1995
DANCE

Thoroughly modern Misha

Ballet’s Prince of Strides has found new exhilaration in contemporary dance

PATRICIA HLUCHY September 18 1995

Thoroughly modern Misha

DANCE

Ballet’s Prince of Strides has found new exhilaration in contemporary dance

PATRICIA HLUCHY

Misha. The name has become synonymous with godlike dancing and an equally Olympian romantic life. After his dramatic defection from the Soviet Union in Toronto in 1974, Mikhail Baryshnikov leapt to icon status for millions of people who had never seen Giselle or La Sylphide and probably never would. Misha—the diminutive of Mikhail—became a household name. And while balletomanes swooned over his gravity-defying leaps, others tracked his off-stage pas de deux with various celebrities, including ballerina Gelsey Kirkland and actor Jessica Lange.

Now, like just about everyone else in the era of cocooning, Baryshnikov seems to have settled down. At 47, he still dances superbly—as a member of the White Oak Dance Project, the modern dance company he co-founded five years ago. But he can no longer execute many of the heart-stopping acrobatics that helped to make him the greatest dancer of his time. And he says his favorite leisure activity when he is not touring—on Sept. 14 in Vancouver, White Oak begins a four-city swing through Western Canada—is spending time at his upstate New York home with his partner of 10 years, former dancer Lisa Rinehart, and their three children, aged five, three and 14 months. (Baryshnikov also has a 14-year-old daughter,

Alexandra, from his relationship with Lange.) He has even taken up golf. If there is still a whiff of the bad-boy Misha of the past, it can be found only in the perfume of the same name that he launched six years ago.

It once seemed that Baryshnikov was doomed to a life of restlessness and melancholy, at least some of it the result of his mother’s suicide when he was 11. In 1987, the dancer acknowledged in an interview that he was “very moody and unpredictable.” But during a conversation with Maclean’s late last month in Niagara Falls, N.Y., where he was staying while performing for two nights at nearby Artpark, Baryshnikov described himself as a “happy person” with a keen appetite for work and life in general.

Clear-eyed and boyish, dressed casually in a plaid shirt and khaki trousers, he said that this is the most fulfilling time of his career. “I think I’m doing more interesting work. I’m a better dancer, I think. I’m getting satisfaction of a different magnitude.”

For years, Baryshnikov was plagued by a right-knee injury that required three operations. But with his switch to modern repertoire, he says, he has no difficulty working out and performing at least five hours a day, most days of the year.

“The material I’m doing now,” he declares, “fits me like a glove.”

Although his name invariably conjures up the image of a noble prince in white tights, Baryshnikov says that he now finds classical ballet boring. While that may seem a radical departure for the former Kirov Ballet star who ran the American Ballet Theatre in New York City from 1980 to 1989, Baryshnikov has always been interested in contemporary choreography. During his stewardship of the ABT, he added many modern pieces to the repertoire—works by such American masters as Twyla Tharp and Merce Cunningham.

Baryshnikov created White Oak—named after the Florida estate of its benefactor, industrialist Howard Gilman—with American choreographer Mark Morris five years ago. The former ballet star and his fellow dancers—four men and five women—have commissioned dozens of new works. “I like to be in the student’s seat,” says Baryshnikov, “rather than feeling, ‘I’ve done it. I’m bored. Another production of Sleeping Beauty—give me a break.’ I’m very proud that we’ve actually started the career of a couple of choreographers.”

White Oak’s repertoire, like the backgrounds of its dancers, is highly varied. One work that may be on some programs in Western Canada, Charles Moulton’s Chickens, is a delightfully cartoonish piece set to some recorded text—the absurdist tale of a duck that is sent to a chicken farm. Another playful composition in the company’s repertoire, Tharp’s Pergolesi, is a solo for Baryshnikov that pokes fun at the life of a dancer and includes allusions to tragic princes and the ultra-suave Fred Astaire, one of Baryshnikov’s heroes. The dancer seems to inhabit the work as though he had created it himself. (In fact, he says choreography just isn’t his forte.) It is a true crowd-pleaser: when Baryshnikov performed it in the first of two performances at Artpark, the capacity crowd of 4,000 gave it an enthusiastic ovation. There is no question that Baryshnikov is key to White Oak’s success. His drawing power means that the company regularly attracts full houses: by the end of last week, both Calgary dates had sold out, while tickets for the Vancouver, Edmonton and Regina shows were selling briskly. It is Baryshnikov’s image that adorns the souvenir T-shirts. And after the first show at Artpark, about 75 female fans waited outside the stage door for autographs. “Of course, some people come because of certain memories,” Baryshnikov acknowledges. “I don’t really care what brings people to the theatre.

I care what they feel after the show.”

Does Baryshnikov, who has never returned to Russia, ever think of going back home? “No” is all he offers. Would he consider doing more theatre?—his Broadway stage debut, in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, won raves. Yes, if the right project came up. Would he want his life to be any different when he turns 50? “No,” he says. “I hope I will be the same person, and have an appetite for work, and be happy.”