The illustrious ballet dancer on natural insecurity, his defection from the USSR to Canada – and how his body feels these days Mikhail Baryshnikov, 74, is the finest ballet dancer of his generation. Born in Riga, Latvia, to Russian parents, he danced with the Kirov Ballet before defecting to Canada in 1974. A dancer of short stature but huge hunger, versatility, technical mastery and personality, Baryshnikov made his career in the US, performing with New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, where he later became artistic director. He moved into contemporary dance, founding the White Oak Dance Project with Mark Morris, and now runs the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York. He still performs in experimental theatre, most recently a version of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard by Ukrainian director Igor Golyak, where he shared the stage with a giant robotic arm. On screen, he has appeared in films The Turning Point and White Nights, and in Sex and the City. On 16 November, Baryshnikov will be awarded the Royal Academy of Dance’s Queen Elizabeth II Coronation award at Buckingham Palace.
Congratulations on receiving the RAD’s QEII award, presented for ‘outstanding services to the art of dance and ballet’. What has ballet given you, and what do you think you have been able to give ballet?
Ballet gave me my life. From the age of eight or nine, my first experiences in ballet gave me the confidence to believe I could be a part of the mysterious world of the theatre. And I mean everyone from the performers to the electricians to the cleaners that come in after a show. I’ve had a love affair with it all and still do. As for what I’ve given to ballet, I gave my excitement, I think. And gratitude for the opportunity to live and work in a unique and sometimes strange world.
How often do you dance now? I saw a video of you busting out some moves at a Vogue parade recently – you’ve still got it!
You’re very kind, thank you. I don’t dance much now, and was flattered when Anna Wintour asked me to be a part of the Vogue event. It was a kiss to New York and its crazy resilience.
How is your body feeling these days?
Every day is a new encounter, and they are not always pleasant.
You’ve danced so many different choreographers and styles across classical and contemporary, and you’re still performing in theatre now. What drives that hunger?
I like to put myself in vulnerable positions artistically. It’s exhilarating to try and overcome the natural insecurity and fear that comes with each new project. Chasing that unknown and finding a way to make it work keeps me focused. And happy, actually.
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