Dancer-actor Mikhail Baryshnikov, Part 2

The legendary Oscar-nominated dancer-actor continues his conversation with Tavis, describing the challenges of running a theater company and assessing why classic dance theater is still segregated.

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: Welcome back to night two of our conversation with dance legend Mikhail Baryshnikov. If you are in the Southern California area, once again, April the 11th through the 21st, you can check out the new production that he stars in and produces called “In Paris.” It is at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. By the way, do you like the – it’s a wonderful facility. You like the –

Mikhail Baryshnikov: Yes, I worked there a couple of years ago, and it’s wonderful, a wonderful shell.

Tavis: Yeah, it’s a great location. So again, the Broad Stage starting April the 11th, you can see him in person in this new production called “In Paris.”

Last night we wrapped our conversation talking about theater and your running the American Ballet and other companies you’ve run in your life, and you were explaining to us the rewards of running a theater company and the challenges of running a theater company.

We closed our conversation with you making a reference to Alvin Ailey and to others, and I want to start the conversation tonight by asking your own assessment, since you have a unique perspective on this, as to why in this country theater, dance theater, classic dance theater, is still so segregated.

I don’t want to just cast aspersion on American Ballet Theater company, but that and others still seem to be wrestling with this idea in a multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America, of including all our faces on the stage. Why is that?

Baryshnikov: Well, you said it. Famously, John Cage said, “I have nothing to say, and I’m saying it.” (Laughter) I worked with Alvin Ailey, he was one of the first choreographers whom I met in New York, and shortly after he invited me to do a new piece called “Pas de Duke,” under Duke Ellington’s music, with his orchestra and with an extraordinary dancer, Judith Jamison, whom I knew just from the stage and I’d met socially.

It was the first time I got to really, in the studio, with Alvin’s company, and it was the first time I saw just, of course, an all-African American cast, with a couple of white people. Then watching, let’s say, New York City ballet was great – Arthur Mitchell and then the young lady in the (unintelligible) ballet.

Then it was Dance Theater of Harlem, which is an all-Black company with a couple of white people. It was a sort of a token of courtesy, I would say, and unspoken that yes, in my fresh view from being a foreigner, just a fresh look, it was a kind of unspoken etiquette that it’s not just all-Black company, all-white company. We are moving toward that arts is arts. Yes, there is an NPR Black history art and the thing, and there is the human rights programs and then more and more.

But we speak politically into the integration of a society in any spheres – in education and politics and struggle for justice and et cetera, et cetera. In art, somehow, it’s the slowest. Like look at – we are in Hollywood, and every second year or the Academy Awards or the New York Film Institute, it’s always where are the roles for African American women or men. It is more conversation than actual action somehow, and kill me, I don’t know why.

Tavis: But see, art, though – I hear your point about how art lags other institutions, but it just seems to me that art ought not be that way. You’ve just listed a number of examples. I don’t need to run the list again – Arthur Mitchell, Alvin Ailey, et cetera, et cetera (unintelligible).

There’s no reason to run the list again, but it’s clear that these people are gifted. It’s clear that they know how to do this and can do this, and yet –

Baryshnikov: Extraordinarily gifted. They wouldn’t dance in New York if they weren’t gifted. But more and more now in dance it’s modern dance companies. Mark Morris – totally multiracial company. It is a lot of examples. Now, our generation – not me; present generation of choreographers, totally colorblind. But it’s very much – I see it everywhere. Downtown, in Europe, it’s common. There’s no question.

In the big companies they still have this bit of a hesitance to this. Again, there’s a few, and there’s a few, and or now it’s a sort of Dance Theater of Harlem is reviving their history and there’s again back from the years of absence on a New York stage, and I don’t know if there is any white people there.

I really do not know, I haven’t seen the show. But I have read it and I’ve heard it, there’s a future for this company.

Tavis: I’ll move on; I’m just troubled by the fact –

Baryshnikov: I don’t know the reason.

Tavis: I’m just talking about the fact that what you have laid out tonight was what you saw when you came here in the early ’70s. It just seems tragic to me on a certain level that in 2012 –

Baryshnikov: Thirty-five-something years, it’s the same.

Tavis: – not a whole lot has changed.

Baryshnikov: It’s just smaller company, and again, people like Mark Morris, I’m (unintelligible) chapeau, from very early, yes, in his career, he was totally open.

Tavis: I want to circle back to “In Paris.” Radical shift there, but that’s why you’re in town, for this production at the Broad Stage. Again, my research suggests to me that you – I won’t put you on the spot and say how much, but my research says you put a lot of your money into this production.

What is it about this project that warrants you – whenever people put their own resources into something, there’s something there for them.

Baryshnikov: Yeah, I knew that let’s say if we were to come with this production to Broadway, this script and this director, who was unknown in the United States, would be scrutinized from A to Z.

Then we have to put ourselves on a very hard regimen and then open somewhere out of town, and then go on Broadway and perform eight weeks, seven weeks, until you drop dead or people stop buying tickets. (Laughter)

He couldn’t do that, because he runs – this company has repertoire commitments in Moscow. They work in Moscow, they have their own theater. This means they couldn’t have – we were working on mutual territory, sort of. We started in New York and then we worked in Paris, we worked most of the time in Helsinki, because it’s the closest and because I don’t go to Russia, and it was too expensive to shuttle them back and forth from Moscow to New York. It’s an enormous amount of money and hotels.

I thought it is hundreds of thousands of dollars, but it’s not millions or anything, and I had a partner whom I knew for many years in Russia, who put half of it dollar to dollar.

It was, I felt – I knew that this money would never come back, but it was my – I felt free to have a little bit of a control for scheduling, and then I could do stuff. Because I have a 9:00 to 5:00 job at my center, which is really a huge job, and that was first, my commitment to the BAC.

But I was a few times for a few weeks here, a couple of months here, so it was a process of from let’s say September to May on and off rehearsals in Europe or elsewhere.

Tavis: You said in a very simple, quick sentence, “I don’t go to Russia.” After all these years – you defected in what, 1974, officially?

Baryshnikov: Yes, mm-hmm.

Tavis: After all these years, why still not go back to Russia?

Baryshnikov: It’s very personal, which I wouldn’t go to that moment, although it is mostly about I always – I left for a serious reason, for a professional reason, and the reason, of course, political. In ’74 it was really a very gloomy atmosphere, I would say, to put it mildly.

I was very restless. I really wanted to be a part of a kind of a progressive society. I was fed up with these Communist doctrines and you were hassled all the time with members of the Party committee who were KGB, what you have to do, where in the West you can go or not to go.

I really felt I’m ready to face a new world, and I was 26 already. For a dancer, it was – I was not a kid. Although I didn’t prepare this decision, it was a spontaneous decision, and when I was touring in Canada I knew that I would put under a stress some members of my family in Russia, and of course people who made a commitment of my security of me being a good boy and stay with the company.

I was just – something really snapped inside. I thought now or never, probably. I was alone. I didn’t have immediate family. I lived alone.

Tavis: Didn’t speak English.

Baryshnikov: I spoke French. But personal, I really – my mother and my father lived – they were decent people, especially my mother was very – my father was military. My mother was very simple, wonderful Russian, insight, very talented woman from Volga River whom they sent as an occupying force to, after the Yalta Agreement and all that in 1945, to Latvia, Riga, which I was born in 1948 over there.

When I left, already I felt – rather, in my early twenties I realized how miserable their lives were. They lived under a huge lie, and they spent years and years in the country which there are – Latvia, one of the Soviet republics, they didn’t know the language, they didn’t know why they were there.

My father was a Party member and he was a pretty high rank military officer under the colonel, junior colonel, I don’t know the term. He was a total Stalinist. A bit with a streak of anti-Semitism and very shrewd man, a very kind of nervous man.

But I remember when Stalin died, I was in my – I was five or so – I remember, he cried, but cried days. When we really realized who the hell Josef Stalin was, my father was crushed. Totally crushed. And Mother – I felt I would never forgive that country for their life, for what they went through.

We lived, until I was 12 or so, in communal apartment with five different families and the same kitchen, in two little – my brother and me and my parents. It was hell, but it was a common thing. My father was not general or admiral, but he was colonel. He was teaching in military academy military topography.

He was teaching spies for (laughter) the Soviet government. Later on, we got a little two-room apartment, separate. But it was okay, just looking back, I still – and I was not that close, even, to him. I adored my mother, but she died when I was 11 or 12, and then I left.

But I’m very, very angry that all these people were lied, all those years, all those years. My mother died when she was barely 40; 39 or something. Very talented woman. She took me to see art when I was – because she didn’t speak any Latvian and my second language was Latvian in the street – Russian at home, Latvian in the street – and she used to take me to the movies in Latvian.

She had a couple of favorite actresses who were Latvian. She loved them, but she didn’t understand what they were saying. (Laughter) I would sit next to her and telling, looking at some drama theater, and she’d say, “What did she say?” “Well, she said something,” and “Shh, shh, shh.” (Laughter) She was like (unintelligible) and I was translating to her.

Tavis: So you were the subtitles.

Baryshnikov: I was the subtitles, that’s right. She took me to see the trophy films, or the “Tarzan” series, because when Russians took MGM musicals and the films, trophy, they were showing with little – sometimes even without subtitles, but without the titles.

I remember vividly seeing “Tarzan” and Fred Astaire, the Chaplin films, Fred Astaire musicals, MGM, because of my mother. She was just interested in everything and she took me to opera and ballet, and then ballet got me hooked.

I sort of – there was something, piece of meat which I really smell from the audience. There were children on sage, but in this piece of meat there was a hook. I swallowed it. (Makes noise) I said, “I want to do what these kids are doing,” and I was probably at age seven – six, seven, eight or so.

Tavis: So God rest her soul, we have your mother to thank for all of this.

Baryshnikov: (Laughs) Yes.

Tavis: Wow. Has this career – I want to rephrase that. Has this life, this life, from those humble, tortured beginnings, in some ways – beautiful with your mom, but those humble, tortured beginnings in Russia, has this life turned out to be what you thought it would be? Has it exceeded your expectations, exceeded your dreams?

Baryshnikov: I never thought about those things. In Russia – you say “tortured,” children are such animals, I really even – my mother died and it was Father remarried and it was kind of awkward.

I just never really – I never was unhappy. I was a happy kid because I fell in love with the theater. Kids create such thick calluses. I always – I did sort of, when a lot of, especially in arts, something happens and you start to blame your present adult behavior on your parents, the way they treated you or they abused you.

I feel it’s just, in many ways, wishful thinking, because people cannot find inside of themselves that kind of strength to overcome, or they have bad friends. In Russia, we never had psychotherapy or psychiatrists. It’s where you go to your friends, you cry, you fight, and you come to a medium sort of agreement where you instinctively have to go.

I was pretty much on my own at age 14, I would say, and I left home when I was 16, but I knew exactly what I want to do and I was sometimes confused, but I had some people around me, because I realized, speaking right away about – in Riga, we had a wonderful – at that time, maybe – wonderful theater.

It’s an opera house, and I realized that what’s really happened on the streets between – because it was a big Jewish ghetto, historically, and they had extraordinary tragedy during Second World War that they traded each other, they sent the Jews to the concentration camp and then Russians sent Latvians to the camp, Stalin.

It was, like, awful. Awful. The Russians historically, pogroms during the civil war and after. But we are famous for our anti-Semitism, historically.

In theater, though, everything was under this umbrella of unity, when everybody danced, and Jews and the Russians and Latvians and Lithuanians and Ukrainians. You never notice those unpleasant things.

But when I was outside, I was a little Russian boy – not a little boy, a Russian boy. A little Ruskie. Because I was walking next to my father, who was in the military (unintelligible) “Mother, you see the way people look at us? What we are doing here?”

Tavis: It’s your former point, though, that –

Baryshnikov: But now I’m saying, I’m looking at this government – that something changes? Yes, it changes, but not in the direction which I think this country should change.

Tavis: You made a point a moment ago, though, that I resonate with, which is that artists really are our greatest ambassadors.

Baryshnikov: Of course.

Tavis: Artists are our greatest ambassadors, and that’s why I celebrate your artistic genius and the work that you have done and continue to do, and that’s why I’m honored to have had a chance for two nights to sit here and talk to you. It’s been my delight.

Baryshnikov: Thank you. Thank you.

Tavis: My delight. Mikhail Baryshnikov is here in town, in part because at the Broad Stage he is starring in and producing a wonderful project called “In Paris.” I’m going to go see it and I’m sure you will as well. It starts April the 11th and runs through the 21st of April, so who knows – I may see you in Santa Monica.

Anyway, I will see you in Santa Monica in the coming days.

Baryshnikov: Nice meeting you.

Tavis: Honored to have you on the program. Thank you.

Baryshnikov: Thank you, nice to be here.

Tavis: That’s our conversation tonight with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Until next time, thanks for watching us here on PBS. Good night from L.A., and as always, keep the faith.

[Clip from a live theater performance]

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.

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Last modified: April 12, 2012 at 6:59 pm