Dancer-actor Mikhail Baryshnikov, Part 1

In part one of a two-part conversation, Tavis talks with the multi-faceted dancer, who discusses his latest project, In Paris—and the first performance in which he speaks Russian—and recalls the first time he was booed after performing before a crowd.

A household name even to non-ballet devotees, Mikhail Baryshnikov is often cited as one of the greatest ballet dancers in history. He began studying his craft in his native Latvia and ultimately joined the Kirov, dancing leading roles created for him. After defecting from the then-Soviet Union, he became a star with the American Ballet Theater, where he later served as artistic director. Baryshnikov co-founded the White Oak Dance Project and launched an arts center in New York. He's also danced/acted in movies and on TV, making his film debut and winning an Oscar nod for his role in The Turning Point.


Tavis: Pleased and delighted to welcome Mikhail Baryshnikov to this program. The iconic dancer, actor, photographer is in L.A. this month for the U.S. premiere of his stage play called “In Paris.” The play is a love story set in 1930s Paris and is based on the short story by the first Russian writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature.

If you are in Southern California from April 11th through the 21st you can catch the production at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica – beautiful facility. Here now a preview of “In Paris.”

[Clip of live performance]

Tavis: There is so much to talk to you about. I’m glad I have two nights to pick your brain, because I don’t know where to start. But I’m honored to have you on this program.

Mikhail Baryshnikov: Nice to be here with you.

Tavis: Let me start by asking why, after all the years of your stage career, you’ve just now gotten around to speaking your native language.

Baryshnikov: Well, Dmitry Krymov, who is the director of this play, we got to know each other socially – mutual friends. He hadn’t seen me act, not in films or television, or even on stage, dancing. Somehow, after a couple of years of that courtship and friendship, he said, “I think I have a role for you,” and when I read – re-read, actually, because I knew vaguely this short story, I agreed because he made me offer I really couldn’t refuse.

Because it’s obviously one of the extraordinary gifted Russian writers, and as you said, a Nobel laureate, first Russian writer who got this extraordinary achievement, an immigrant himself. He lived in Paris after the civil war in Russia.

The story got my sort of nerve going. I thought I kind of – my background, and I felt I knew people like this character, a retired general who really – an exile. And my father was a military man, is in military, kind of always be a military man.

It’s a classic adaptation, a very short story. It is eight, 10 pages, maximum. But it’s done in very simple but very poetic way. It’s a lot of movement and a wonderful actress I’m playing with, Anna Sinyakina, who is a very well-known actor in Russia in intelligent films and the theater.

Of course, playing in your mother tongue and French, because it’s in Russian and in French, the way it’s written, so everything’s happening in Paris in the early ’30s and sort of in the midst of the winter and not very friendly Paris, the way it was at that time to Russian émigrés who had been kicked out by the red Russian army.

They all settled in Paris or in London or in Berlin or Prague at that time. This general meets in a Russian restaurant a beautiful young woman who is waitressing, and he notices that she looks like from good family. They got to know each other’s lives. It’s a short and very poignant and arresting love story, which ends up tragically.

Tavis: When you said – I love the phrase, your “mother tongue,” I asked earlier why so long to do something in your mother tongue and you answered that, but it occurs to me to ask now, even though you speak, obviously, Russian fluently, whether or not it was easier than you thought or more difficult than you thought to act in your mother tongue?

Baryshnikov: No, much easier.

Tavis: Much easier.

Baryshnikov: Of course.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Baryshnikov: Yes, it’s a good question. I really found myself much more comfort, because somehow the phonetics, the way it rolls out of my tongue, it’s much more natural than any language you learn or even in your teens or later, like English or Spanish or any language I’m trying to converse. It is a pleasure, I don’t know why, and it’s a story which kind of keeps me awake.

Tavis: What’s the experience like, you think – I’ve not seen the play yet and I’m anxious to get to the Broad Stage to see it myself – but what’s the experience like, you think, for the audience, to sit and to watch a play in Russian with subtitles? So this isn’t a movie, obviously, where you’re –

Baryshnikov: Well, the way it’s done, these subtitles (unintelligible) rolls through the set. It’s not, like, two screens here and there, and you kind of look at the actor and then trying to catch up. It’s done really in an extraordinary, creative way, and it’s kudos to the director, the way it’s done.

Because there’s not that much of a text, because he – Dmitry Krymov came to the theater, although he had an extraordinary pedigree, his father was a very famous directory, Anatoly Efros, and his mother a famous writer and essayist and theater critic, Natalia Krymova – he took the last name of his mother – he started as a painter.

Then he graduated to be a scenic designer, and then like eight or seven years ago, he started to direct. The first few productions were really – received such extraordinary acclaim, he started to show his work at festivals in Europe and elsewhere, and it’s the first time he’s showing his work in the United States, but he’s known in Russia by many adoring fans and is very successful in some European festivals.

Tavis: I started reading, doing a lot of reading, in fact, about your back story. I’ve been a fan for years and I knew a little bit about you as a fan, but the more I got into your back story, the more fascinating it was for me to learn so much about you.

I did not know that when you first performed, not this production, but years ago when you first performed in Paris, you were booed. Do you recall this? You may not want to, but do you recall that you were booed when you first performed in Paris many years ago?

Baryshnikov: In Paris, yes. Well, it was – (laughter)

Tavis: Before you answer –

Baryshnikov: No, no, it’s definitely – no, it was a ballet by Roland Petit, a very wonderful French choreographer and a good friend. He passed away last year, unfortunately. The French people are very flamboyant in their opinions.

Tavis: That’s one word for it, “flamboyant.” (Laughter)

Baryshnikov: Yes, yes, and there was a –

Tavis: That’s a charitable read, yeah.

Baryshnikov: There was two very famous choreographers, both of them dead now, Roland Petit and Maurice Bejart, and the fans of Maurice Bejart booed to Roland Petit, and the fans of Roland Petit booed for Maurice Bejart.

Plus it was a performance – it was a modern piece, which actually based with the music of Tchaikovsky, and it’s “Queen of Spades,” “Dame d’Pique,” and a lot of people wanted to see it maybe in a classical ballet.

I was not booed directly, but it was mostly booed (laughter) – but I was surprised. Not that I was that upset, because I knew that actually it was one of his best choreographies.

Tavis: I only raised that because I wonder what your – when you’re doing a stage play called “In Paris,” and it’s obviously set in Paris, I was wondering what your relationship with Paris has been all these years later.

Baryshnikov: No, it was – actually, we performed “In Paris” in Paris, and it was very successful (unintelligible). (Laughter) It was really very favorably received by the audience and critics.

Tavis: Speaking of a production that you were in being booed, how have you know over the years – you’ve been so good for so long at what you do, but even the greats have off nights and they have off productions. I think you’ll concede that.

How have you known over the years when you didn’t deliver what the audience expected of you, when you were off your game, so to speak? What’s your barometer?

Baryshnikov: This happens. It happens.

Tavis: Yeah.

Baryshnikov: It happens sometimes like sometimes wonderful golfers, from the first two holes they play and something goes wrong. Look at what happened in the Masters yesterday. There’s Rory, he said, “I didn’t have my best game.” Sometimes from day to day and no matter how well you’re prepared, something happened. It was really something was wrong.

Something was wrong in preparation or this bit of nerves, or maybe too relaxed sometimes. But speaking of booing, I had the same experience the first time I worked with Twyla Tharp, with American Ballet Theater. She did a piece called “Once More, Frank,” when Frank Sinatra sings with his daughter a famous record. It was a little duet, which later on it was Sinatra’s suite and the Sinatra songs. It was a huge success in her career.

But that first performance at the big gala at New York State theater, instead of me dancing some classical, my bread and butter, so to speak, we worked for weeks with Twyla on this little duet, and when we finished we were booed. (Laughter) It was a bit strange for me and unexpected, but it was not first time, and I hope not – when Jean Cocteau I think famously said if you’re not booed, that you’re doing something wrong.

When everybody loves what you’re doing, there is something – but it’s more toward the creator. I’m not a choreographer, and usually when people express their feeling that strongly it’s about a general conception of the piece.

Tavis: So it’s not the dancing, per se.

Baryshnikov: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think so. In opera tradition, when opera die-hard fans, there is a replacement of singer or singer wasn’t at his or hers vocal best, doing something, they boo. Especially now they pay hundreds of dollars for the ticket. But that’s a tradition more than in dance, in fact. I think dance fans are more loyal.

Tavis: How does the artist, though, not internalize that, or maybe the answer is to internalize it to make you better. How do you process when the audience doesn’t love what you do?

Baryshnikov: Well, it’s never a pleasant feel. When you work sometimes for weeks and weeks and weeks on a piece which was badly received by the critics and sometimes by the audience, this is the moment I have to kind of regroup and say when I am on stage in this piece, this is the best piece ever in that very moment.

I’m trying to do even more than 100 percent, because I know that choreographer, she or he, upset about it, of course. It’s never pleasant. Very few people say, “Oh, I don’t care.” I don’t believe that. Everybody cares. When you laughed, you laughed. When the work is questionable, then you just work through this kind of moment, a very unpleasant moment, and finish up.

Then you decide with choreographers would we continue work on this piece. Sometimes they rework the piece, it becomes success. Like George Balanchine always, even pieces which he’d done 30, 40, even 50 – 40 years ago, he changed, because he said today I see this, and then nothing wrong with that. That’s the way it is.

Tavis: I want to circle back to “In Paris” here in just a second. Before I do that, we’ve been having a conversation about your role as dancer, as artist, on the stage. I’m curious if you might tell me what the greatest reward was and what the greatest challenge was of running a theater company, American Ballet or one of the others you’ve run.

What’s been the great reward of running a theater company and the great challenge for you doing that when you yourself are an artist, a dancer?

Baryshnikov: Well, introducing a new generation of the dancers to the theater, because you have an opportunity to audition people for your company. In your mind you’re having already kind of a perception what kind of look of a dancer, what kind of stature, what kind of proportions, just purely physical first.

Then if you really feel that because they’re audition to a dance company where they are 16, 17, 18, you know pretty much that certain – you see what’s what. Then you meet people and you talk to them, what’s their ambition. For some people it’s obviously being a dancer in (unintelligible) ballet, mostly. Some people have more potential, that they have an opportunity to grow and to have the soloist parts.

There are certain people who are with work; it was just definitely have the potential to be principal dancers. It’s hard; sometimes people want to be in company no matter what. Some people have – they ask you directly, “Do I have a potential to be especially in New York classical company?” No matter how young they are, sometimes you talk to their teacher, sometimes their parents.

Say, “This young lady at age 16, 17, maybe should try to think to go to the less-known company,” and then she or he would have a better potential to succeed in somewhere, let’s say, at that time in Boston or Philadelphia or San Francisco or Chicago, elsewhere.

Tavis: And you can spot that that early in their life?

Baryshnikov: Yes.

Tavis: Wow.

Baryshnikov: Well, that’s one of the sort of challenges. Or sometimes these young people work for three, four, five years as a (unintelligible) ballet dancer, let’s say in New York, if you’re talking about American Ballet Theater, and then go elsewhere and become soloists and principal dancers elsewhere.

Europe sometimes, but mostly in the States. It happens all the time. People from New York City ballet goes to San Francisco or to Miami or starting their own companies. You see, dancers are quite mature people because they start performing so early. They become professionals when they start to take everyday classes.

They’re 12, 13 when they start to perform “Nutcrackers” and “Sleeping Beauties” as children. You could see who is who, who has really a lot of here, a lot of there and their body. That’s one of the bigger challenges you have when you run a classical dance company.

Then give them opportunity to dance in repertoire, which you think it’s right. In my case I had the great tradition of American Ballet Theater, choreography by Agnes de Mille and Antony Tudor and Jerome Robbins, Balanchine. Lucia Chase was the founder, and Oliver Smith created an extraordinary legacy of the company.

There were ballets by Alvin Ailey and Glen Tetley and then Twyla Tharp. I really wanted to show the company the best way. It was a controversial directorship, I would say, because I made certain mistakes and it was a lot of personalities. Some people and some critics did not quite agree with certain directorialships.

But I was also a young man and I was still dancing. (Unintelligible) with my career and back shelf, but it was a fascinating experience.

Tavis: I said 30 minutes ago how delighted I was that we would have Mr. Baryshnikov for two nights, and now you see why. I barely scratched the surface. So much more to talk to him about tomorrow night. I want to ask him why classic American dance theater is still so segregated, since you mentioned Alvin Ailey a moment ago. I want to talk more about “In Paris” and why you put your own money into this.

So much more to talk to Mikhail Baryshnikov tomorrow night. Again, if you’re in the Southern California area starting April the 11th, you can see “In Paris” at the Broad Stage here in Santa Monica. Until next time, keep the faith.

[Montage of various Baryshnikov stage performances]

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Last modified: April 11, 2012 at 1:32 pm