Mikhail Baryshnikov on leaving everything behind

On the night of June 29, 1974, after a performance with a touring Bolshoi Ballet troupe in downtown Toronto, Mikhail Baryshnikov walked out the stage door, past a crowd of fans, and began running.

Baryshnikov, then 26 and already one of ballet’s biggest stars, had made the momentous decision to leave the Soviet Union and build a career in the West. On that rainy evening, he had to dodge KGB agents — and onlookers looking for autographs — as he rushed to meet a group of Canadian and American friends waiting in a car a few blocks away.

“That car took me to the free world,” Baryshnikov, 76, recalled in a recent interview. “It was the beginning of a new life.”

His escape with cloak and dagger helped him cultural celebrity“Soviet dancer in Canada defects during Bolshoi tour,” The New York Times declared on its front page.

But the focus on his decision to leave the Soviet Union has at times made Baryshnikov uneasy. He said he doesn’t like how the term “turncoat” sounds in English, which conjures up the image of a traitor who has committed high treason.

“I’m not a defector — I’m a selector,” he said. “That was my choice. I selected this life.”

Baryshnikov was born in Soviet-occupied Riga, Latvia, and moved to Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, in 1964, at the age of 16, to study with the famous teacher Alexander Pushkin. At 19, he joined the Kirov Ballet, now known as the Mariinsky, and quickly became a star on the Russian ballet scene.

After his death, he moved to New York and joined the American Ballet Theatre (which he later led as artistic director) and then the New York City Ballet. As a leading male dancer of the 1970s and 1980s, his star power helped elevate ballet to a higher level in popular culture. He has worked as an actor, appearing on stage and in several films, including ‘The pivot point”, as well as the television series “Sex and the city.” And in 2005 he founded the Baryshnikov Art Center in Manhattan, presenting dance, music and other programming.

In recent years, Baryshnikov, who has American and Latvian citizenship, has become more outspoken about politics. He has criticized Former President Donald J. Trump, likening him to the “dangerous totalitarian opportunists” of his youth. He has also spoken out against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, accusing Russian President Vladimir V. Putin of being a “world of fear.” He is one of the founders of Real Russiaa foundation to support Ukrainian refugees.

In an interview, Baryshnikov reflected on the 50th anniversary of his defection; the father he left behind in the Soviet Union (his mother died when he was 12); the pain he feels over the Ukrainian war; and the challenges facing Russian artists today. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What memories do you have of that June day in Toronto?

I remember feeling a sense of comfort and security after seeing some very friendly faces in the getaway car. But I was also afraid that it would end differently: that it could fall apart at any moment and become a bad cop movie. I started a new life, something completely unknown, and it was my decision and my responsibility. It’s about time I grew up.

You have described your switch to an artistic rather than a political direction, because you wanted more creative freedom and to work abroad more often, which the Soviet authorities did not allow.

Of course it was a political decision, from a distance. But I really wanted to be an artist and my biggest concern was my dance. I was 26. That’s middle age for a classical dancer. I wanted to learn from Western choreographers. Time was running out.

Earlier you said: “What I did is called a crime in Russia. But my life is my art, and I realized it would be a greater crime to destroy it.”

Did I say it so eloquently? I do not believe it. Maybe someone corrected it with the correct grammar. But I still agree with that. I realized early on that I am a capable dancer; that’s what I could do, and that’s it.

You were afraid that your defection would endanger your father, who was a soldier in Riga and taught military topography at the air force academy.

I knew that the KGB services would interrogate him and ask him if he was involved, and if he would write me a letter or something. He did nothing. I have to say, “Thank you, Papa. Thank you for not bending over backwards.” He refused to send me a letter and asked me to please come back.

Have you ever communicated with him again?

I sent him two or three letters saying, “Don’t worry about me, I’m fine, I hope everybody’s okay back home.” He never responded. And then he died pretty soon after that, in 1980.

You started dancing at age 7 and enrolled a few years later at the Riga School of Choreography, the state ballet academy. What did your parents think of your dancing?

They thought it was funny that I went to some kind of vocational school at the age of 10 or 11. But my father always said, “You need to go to a real school to study mathematics and literature and get good grades.” I was a really bad student. He said, “If you don’t make it in a real school, I’ll send you to a military school, like Suvorov, and they’ll put you on the right path there.” He was bluffing, of course. I was already deeply, deeply, deeply in love with the theater. I was in love with the atmosphere — the idea that I was part of this big, beautiful circus.

Did you feel you had to forge a new identity when you came to the West?

I felt a tremendous sense of freedom. When you don’t have authority over yourself, you start to get crazy ideas about yourself: “Oh, I’m just Tarzan in the jungle now.” But it was enough. I said to myself, “You have to be a grown man already. You have to do something serious.” I knew I could dance and I already had some repertoire in my luggage.

Are you still dancing?

Dancing may be a harsh word, but theater directors sometimes ask, “Are you comfortable when I ask you to move?” I say absolutely. I welcome that. But I don’t miss being on stage in a dancer’s costume.

You have avoided politics for much of your career, but lately you have weighed in on a variety of issues, including the war in Ukraine. Why speak out now?

Ukraine is a different story. Ukraine is our friend. I danced Ukrainian dances, listened to Ukrainian music and singers. I know Ukrainian ballets as “The forest song”, and I performed in Kiev. I am a pacifist and an antifascist, that much is certain. And that is why I am on this side of the war.

You were born eight years after Latvia was forcibly annexed by the Soviet Union; your father was one of the Russian workers sent there to teach. How does your experience of growing up there influence how you see this war?

I spent the first sixteen years of my life in Soviet Latvia and I know the other side of the coin. I was the son of an occupier. I knew that experience of living under occupation. The Russians treated it as their territory and their country, and they said that the Latvian language is nonsense.

I don’t want Putin and his army to enter Riga. Finally Latvia has real independence and they are doing quite well. My mother is buried there. I feel like when I come to Riga, I come back to my home.

You wrote one open letter to Putin in 2022, saying he had created a “world of fear.”

He is a true imperialist with a completely bizarre sense of power. Yes, he speaks with my mother’s tongue, the same way she spoke. But he does not represent the real Russia.

How have you changed since you left the Soviet Union fifty years ago?

I am a very happy person. I don’t really know. I want to write a beautiful sentence. But it is not exactly the time for beautiful sentences, when someone like Alexei Navalny was sent to prison and destroyed for his honest life.

Would you ever want to return to Russia?

No, I do not think so.

Why not?

The idea doesn’t even occur to me. I don’t have an answer for you.

I sometimes imagine that you thinking or dreaming about your time there.

Naturally. Sometimes I speak Russian and I read Russian literature quite often. This is my mother’s language. She was a very simple woman from Kstovo, near the Volga. I learned my first Russian words from her. I remember her voice, the specific music of the Volga region. Her sounds. Her “oh.” Her vowels.

Some Russian artists, such as the Bolshoi Ballet star Olga Smirnovawho is now with the National Ballet, have left Russia because of the war.

I saw her dance in New York and met her after the show. She is a wonderful dancer, a lovely woman and very, very, very brave. It is a big change to come to the Netherlands after being a soloist with the Bolshoi. And yet she was in great shape and showed great pride to perform with a company that had adopted her. I am rooting for her.

Are you surprised that artists are leaving Russia again because of concerns about politics and repression?

There is a Russian word that refers to refugees and people who run: bezhentsy. It refers to people who run from the bullets, from the bombs, in this war. There are some Russians — dancers and maybe athletes — who run more gracefully than others. In my very small way, I try to support them. In the end, we are all running from someone.

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