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Mikhail Baryshnikov – White Oak Dance Project – Sadler’s Wells

This autumn has been a great season for dance.  It started with Merce Cunningham and this week I saw Mikhail Baryshnikov at the Sadler Wells.  To see a man of his age (he’s in his 50’s) dancing like God was awing.  The programme and the newspaper mentioned how his “body is starting to fail”.  I wish I had such a “downhill start to failing” body like his!  My body has become an insult to other people’s eyes but it was great when I was young; so, I can still look at the photos of “Yesterday when I was so young” (remember that beautiful song by Lena Horne?)  But my darlings, I am not writing to speak of my past but rather the present gorgeous deep blue eyed and high cheek-boned Mikhail Baryshnikov!  (just a little addition, he still has hair!)  His only potential problem was his height – 5ft 7in.  He said, “For a classical dancer I was minimum - five foot seven, the shortest one can get.  An inch out, and it would have been a sad story.” 

Mikhail has a Slavic face.  He is a charming man.  Known as one of the greatest dancers of the 20th century, he has had six operations on his knee; I have read that some mornings it is so stiff that he has to run it under the hot shower to get it moving.  There is a cost for him to continue dancing in his fifties.  He said, “I am in good shape.  I shouldn’t complain.”  He uses a special rubber ball, which he rolls up and down his spine to stretch.  He travels with his physiotherapist, who spends an hour pummelling him every day.  Mikhail’s body gets about 4 hours of exercise a day.  

He has a full life – three kids (with Lisa Rhinehart), one 20-year old daughter (with Jessica Lange), dogs, cats, birds, and a very large property.  Today he and his partner, Lisa Rhinehart (the choreographer) live in Rockland County just outside New York with their three children.  They also have a flat in Paris.  Mikhail commented about his unwed relationship with Lisa Rhinehart by saying, “We cherish our relationship and I don’t care what the church or society thinks about it.  It’s nobodies business, least of all the state’s.”   

When asked about death, he said, “All my relatives died very young.  I really believe in genetics.  I hope I am wrong!  I will go when I am 55, when I am 60.  I am prepared: at least I can speak about it.  But oh!  I don’t want to be in a wheelchair.  I don’t want to be gaga with people trying to take care of me…my father died that way.  It was a horrifying death.  Really horrible and his family couldn’t even take care of him.  He died with two nurses turning him around, just like a vegetable.”  In Russia if you are 60 you are considered very old.  My mother has spent five years in a wheelchair, so I can understand his feelings and concern.

Mikhail was born in Riga, Latvia on 27 January 1948 to Russian parents.  He didn’t feel at home in Latvia or in Russia.  “My home was the United States,” he said.  In 1964 he moved to Leningrad and went to Vaganova Ballet Academy.  The great Alexander Pushkin, who also taught Rudolf Nureyev, took Mikhail under his wing.  In 1967 Mikhail became a soloist with Kirov Ballet.  Pushkin died in the 70’s and after his death, Baryshnikov started to be treated with suspicion by the KGB agents.  In 1974 he went on tour with the Bolshoi Ballet in Toronto, Canada.  Later came the sensational escape.  After the final performance of Don Quixote from the O’Keefe Center, he came out of the door with a gaggle of fans waiting for him.  He was not the first – Nureyev and Makarova had also escaped to the West.  All this soon made him an international celebrity and his performances have been sell-outs since.  Contributed to his fame is his extraordinary jump, which is unbelievably high and stays suspended in mid-air.   The critic Clive Barnes wrote of him, “A pantherine leap of raw grace.  He rose like a piston; he landed like a lark.  He took off like Jerry Lee Lewis; he finished like Jane Austen.” 

He has danced with the Royal Ballet and Paris Opera Ballet but he is more commonly associated with the American Ballet Theatre.  From 1979 to 1980 he was a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet Theatre: “Staging Giselle 1980, Cinderella 1983, and Swan Lake 1988.  As a classical dancer he was possessed of a superlative and pure technique and extraordinary musicality and an uncanny ability to inhabit the characters he played on stage.  He was also remarkably versatile, excelling equally well at noble princes and light-hearted rogues.” (From my Oxford Book of Dance)  He made his debut as a choreographer of Nutcracker for the American Ballet Theatre in 1976.  Later in his career he retired from classical dance and reinvented himself as a modern dancer, which lead to the creation of the White Oak Dance Project.  He founded this project in 1990 with choreographer Mark Morris.  The name White Oak comes from a nature reserve, White Oak Plantation on the Florida-Georgia boarder where he has a rehearsal studio.  His friend, the paper magnate Howard Gilman, built the studio for him. 

Misha (which is what most people refer to him as) has never returned to classical ballet.  Some people said that White Oak was a career respirator for Baryshnikov.  He says of himself,

“…well, you have to take off my age.  That would make it much.  I think they are all in their twenties and thirties.  I was really speaking for myself.  I am a kind of fossil factory.  Nevertheless I am still here.  But there are a lot of character actors in the dance theatre who perform until they are 50, 60, 70 even.  But especially in contemporary and modern dance there is a tradition.  If the material equals your age and you are in control of it, it doesn’t matter how old you are.  I’m not trying to look 35 or 25 or pretending I am a young man.  For me, life is over practically.  But artistic life is a reflection of your hopes and your desires as well as how you are dealing with reality.”

 He has charmed many girls – Natalia Makarova, Gelsey Kirkland and the actress Jessica Lange, with whom he had a daughter with in 1981. Kirkland published an autobiography with details of their affair stating, “He goes through everybody.  He doesn’t miss anyone.”  With his charm and charisma as well as being a celebrity he became a movie star in 1976 with Shirley Maclaine’s The Turning Point, he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor; he played a Russian ballet star.  And he also stared on Broadway.  Last year he went to the Edinburgh Festival with a very cool programme about the Sixties and Seventies called PastForward.   But this year he was still Mikhail Baryshnikov the seducer with his 14-year old company and contagious dancing.  It was my passion for Misha that made my night…he has the best 50+ body in the world!  

Verinha Ottoni.




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