Legendary Dancer Baryshnikov Opens New York Arts Center

July 17, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: Decades after he first took the world by storm, Mikhail Baryshnikov is still dancing, not as often and not with the breathtaking leaps of his younger self, but at 59 he is still a captivating performer, one long recognized, as one recent reviewer put it, as the quintessence of his art form.

MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV, Dancer and Choreographer: So many wonderful projects in my mind waiting to be realized, and it just drives me nuts sometimes.

JEFFREY BROWN: It drives you nuts?

Baryshnikov’s latest obsession: he’s created an art center in New York to give people in the dance and theater worlds the time and space to create their art, something he thinks has become increasingly difficult in our commercially driven culture.

MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV: I understand what kind of struggle a young creator sometimes goes through. They have an idea; they don’t have the money. They have the money; they don’t have enough money to rent a studio. They have rent the studio, but they have not enough money to rent the studio for three or four weeks or four or five weeks to complete the project.

I’m not trying to change the world and change the scene of the New York art scene. I just hopefully can give opportunity occasionally for an artist to arrive at the studio and take a deep breath and say, “Well, I feel comfortable here, and I really feel I can produce something personal and beautiful.”

JEFFREY BROWN: The Baryshnikov Art Center occupies three floors in a renovated midtown Manhattan building. In addition to a small theater, there are several rehearsal studios and office space.

ASZURE BARTON, Choreographer and Dancer: And go.

JEFFREY BROWN: The center offers residencies to emerging choreographers so they can settle in and work.

ASZURE BARTON: I just have to look at the spacing, as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: One is 31-year-old Aszure Barton.

ASZURE BARTON: I’m usually running from place to place to place renting space, you know, in different locations in the city, so it’s incredibly helpful. It’s heaven, it really is, to have this space.

Working with young dancers

JEFFREY BROWN: In addition to Barton and several of the dancers in her company, Baryshnikov has brought in students from Julliard and NYU to form Hell's Kitchen Dance Group, named after the once-rough neighborhood where the building is located. One of the pieces they're performing is Barton's "Come In," inspired by music by Russian composer Vladimir Martynov, a gift from Baryshnikov.

In rehearsal, Barton was in charge, giving directions to Baryshnikov and the 12 younger dancers, but she also accepted advice from her star performer and relayed his guidance to her troupe.

ASZURE BARTON: It's happy thoughts, not serious drama. He has so much integrity as an artist. He's got so much knowledge. And so when he says, when he has a thought or when he has a question, it's pretty valid. And I definitely think about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: You take it. You take it in.


JEFFREY BROWN: In the second piece, Baryshnikov dances with two women in "Leap to Tall," by choreographer Donna Uchizono.

MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV: Dancing together with young people, it's a great jolt to your system, mentally and physically.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why does it make you so happy to see young people dancing?

MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV: Well, because, you know, what else is in life, you know, besides family and, you know, for some people religion, whatever, art? Arts are something -- it's just such a part of my life. It would be really extraordinary boring life without art and see life art, you know? It's such a bizarre notion. You invite people paying a certain amount of dollars to see this bunch of people just do this really weird stuff.

JEFFREY BROWN: So it's a bizarre notion for you?

MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV: It's a bizarre notion, and I've been lucky through my life, you know, I experience this.

JEFFREY BROWN: But people have been coming to watch you for decades, and you're looking at all of us watching you thinking, "You fools."

MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV: You fools! You know, I'm just having good time.

Baryshnikov's dance legacy

JEFFREY BROWN: Baryshnikov began dancing in Riga, Latvia, then part of the Soviet Union. A teenage sensation, he joined the famed Kirov Ballet in 1967. This footage from two years later shows him winning an international competition in Moscow. He defected to the U.S. in 1974 and began a long association with the American Ballet Theater. Here, he dances "The Nutcracker" with Gelsey Kirkland in 1977.

That same year, he appeared in his first Hollywood film, "The Turning Point." Seeking new challenges, Baryshnikov built a second life as a master of modern dance. In 1990, he and choreographer Mark Morris formed the White Oak Project to commission and perform new works. Their partnership lasted 12 years. Approaching 60, he's continued to perform whenever he finds a project he wants to undertake.

MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV: The material which I'm doing now I can do 100 percent of my capacity, of course. You know, otherwise I would never allow myself to go on stage.

JEFFREY BROWN: But as your body changes, as you get older, you don't think about it in terms of "Oh, my goodness, I can't do what I used to do"?





MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV: Every day. And I scream sometimes during the rehearsal, "Well, I forgot how old I am, guys. You know, just like slow down. And I cannot do those things."

JEFFREY BROWN: In one dance on the current tour by French choreographer Benjamin Millepied, Baryshnikov dances with himself, with himself, that is, as a teenager.

You dance against a video of your young self, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: What is that like?

MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV: That was like 40-something years after. It's kind of weird, but same time very moving, from my perspective. You understand how fast the life of the person is running away.

A new generation of fans

JEFFREY BROWN: In recent years, millions of new fans came to know Baryshnikov as Aleksandr Petrovsky, the dashing love interest on the HBO series "Sex and the City." He's an avid photographer who's exhibited his work. And a father of four with two grandchildren, he's recently put out a children's book called "Because," in which a dancing grandmother celebrates the creative spirit in everyone, young and old. In the fall, he's agreed to act in four short plays by Samuel Beckett.

MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV: For me, it is such a commitment and kind of scary commitment, because you are really -- if I didn't achieve certain level, I would hate myself for the rest of my life, you know?

JEFFREY BROWN: But I read profiles about you, and it often uses the word "metamorphosis," you know, like you're changing. But do you think of it as changes, or do you think it's all the same guy just trying different things that are very much part of you?

MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV: I want to put myself on the edge that I really -- there is an empty stomach, there is that moment of divine insecurity, so to speak.

JEFFREY BROWN: Divine insecurity?

MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV: Divine insecurity, that I know it might happen, it might happen in my way, but it might not.

JEFFREY BROWN: It's interesting to me that here you are, a world-class artist for a long time recognized as such, but what you're doing here and what we're talking about largely is focusing on really struggling artists. Why? Why do you care?

MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV: I'm one of them. Luckily, I made enough money not to work for money, that I work only when I really want to. For me, it's a wrap, you know? For them, it's a beginning. And I understand how they feel. I do.

JEFFREY BROWN: This summer, Mikhail Baryshnikov is dancing with his young colleagues on a tour around the nation and abroad.