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