Dance

A defector still true to his art

Mikhail Baryshnikov marks the 25th anniversary of his escape from the Soviet Union

John Bemrose July 1 1999
Dance

A defector still true to his art

Mikhail Baryshnikov marks the 25th anniversary of his escape from the Soviet Union

John Bemrose July 1 1999

A defector still true to his art

Dance

Mikhail Baryshnikov marks the 25th anniversary of his escape from the Soviet Union

Clad in a billowing pale gold skirt and tight black jacket, Mikhail Baryshnikov is walking around the empty floodlit stage of Toronto’s Elgin Theatre. Not leaping and pirouetting as he did 20 years ago when he was the reigning crown prince of ballet, heir to Nureyev and Pavlova and Nijinsky and all the other great dancers who had come out of Russia. But walking—with an odd, undulating movement, attuned to the haunting accompaniment of Japanese drums and flute.

The members of the capacity audience watch intently. Perhaps some of them are hoping to see a flash of the former ballet star in the 51-year-old dancer. And in a way they do, for although it is now a decade since Baryshnikov switched from ballet to modern dance, he still manifests the same God-given gift that lifted him above his contemporaries: a thrilling stage presence that informs his every movement with significance. Baryshnikov was in Toronto last week with his U.S.-based modern dance troupe, The White Oak Dance Project, to mark the 25 th anniversary of his defection from the Soviet Union. That 1974 event involved many Canadian connections, for it was after a performance with his fellow Soviet ballet artists in Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre (now the Hummingbird Centre) that the 26-year-old dancer fled to a car waiting to spirit him away into a new life in the West. The car was driven by a young lawyer, Jim Peterson, now the federal minister of international trade. And it was a Toronto couple, Tim and Nalini Stewart, who sheltered the escapee at their farm north of the city. “There was a fear of what the Russians might do to him, a fear that the Canadian government j wouldn’t give him the proper papers,” recalls Nalini Stewart, now an arts activist. “Misha was very concerned—but then he would break the tension by telling jokes or standing on his head.”

On his recent visit, the Latvian-born performer also received an honorary doctorate from the University ofToronto, in recognition of his contributions to North American dance. The soft-spoken dancer—who had left the Soviet Union to escape constant KGB surveillance and pressure—told the graduating class that he hoped they would create a world where young people “would never again feel terror because of their dreams.” The same day, the university announced the Mikhail Baryshnikov Refugee Scholarship to help academics

forced by war and persecution to flee their homes. Proceeds from the dancer’s Toronto shows will help launch the fund.

Later, Baryshnikov faced a battery of reporters who asked him what he could remember about his defection. “Not much,” he playfully told them, “I was pretty drunk.” Later, he avowed that “driving into Toronto today, certain memories went through my mind.” But then he flashed his melancholy smile and added: “I keep those moments to myself. ’ He was more forthcoming on the subject of contemporary dance, which he compared favourably to classical ballet as “less mannered, more democratic, more transparent, more pedestrian and, from my point of view, closer to the hearts of people today.” And he admitted: “This is pretty much the end of my career. At a certain age you realize you’re stepping slowly downhill.”

It didn’t look like it, though, as Baryshnikov danced in choreographer Mark Morris’s The Argument, the conclusion of the Elgin show. The sole male in the company, Baryshnikov accompanied three female dancers with the dapper aplomb of Bred Astaire: at times he seemed on the verge of tap-dancing. There could be no doubt that Baryshnikov was the main interest of the evening. On the whole, the coolly pretty style of dancing favoured by his company was rarely more than coolly pleasing. But whenever Baryshnikov was onstage (about half the time) the temperature soared. In the end, many audience members stood to applaud—but they seemed less moved by the dances than determined to keep their date with fame.

John Bemrose