Mikhail Baryshnikov: A Different Role for Dance's Darling

He’s the founder and driving force of the Baryshnikov Arts Center on West 37th Street. “I never knew that it would bloom into such a formidable institution,” he says. “It’s really very exciting.”

Forty years ago, when Mikhail Baryshnikov slipped out the back door of a Toronto theater, leaving behind family, friends, and a thriving career in the Soviet Union, it wasn’t to make a political statement. It wasn’t because he craved fame outside Russia or the wealth attainable in America and Europe. He was itching for the opportunity to try new things as a dancer, to work with Western choreographers, to expand his repertoire. And over the ensuing decades, he did just that, performing new ballets by Jerome Robbins and Twyla Tharp, exploring modern and post-modern dance with Alvin Ailey and Aszure Barton. This artistic restlessness, this hunger for novelty, is the driving force behind the Baryshnikov Arts Center.

Mikhail Baryshnikov photographed by Annie Leibovitz
Photo: Annie Leibovitz

Located on West 37th Street, in the neighborhood once known as Hell’s Kitchen, the Baryshnikov Arts Center was founded in 2005 as an unabashedly idealistic enterprise for fostering and developing artistic talent. BAC alumni can now be found dancing, directing, concertizing all over town. Heading into BAC’s tenth season, Baryshnikov expresses surprise at the way the center has grown.

“I never knew that it would bloom into such a formidable institution,” he says.  “We have a great group of people working here, and we have a lot of plans, and it’s really very exciting.”

For this season, the plans include the United States premiere of a contemporary Russian play about a pair of long-married couples, Illusions, by Ivan Viripaev. The translator and director, Cazimir Liske, is an American with “a really extraordinary story,” Baryshnikov says. “This young man went to Russia to study the craft and art of being an actor at the Moscow Art Theatre School and stayed for 10 years, learned the language, and started to perform in Russian on television and in the theater.”

Liske is one of some 160 international and local artists who have come to BAC for residencies that allow them space and time “to go deeper into their craft.” Baryshnikov is a keen observer of this process. “It gives me a jolt of energy to see young people – not just young people, people of different ages – create. I am an interpretive person; I’m not a director or a choreographer. But I like to create opportunities for those people.” He’s very involved in the selection process, but after that, it’s hands-off: “To leave the artist alone is the best way to help,” he says.

As founder and artistic director of the center, Baryshnikov can’t just spend his time in BAC’s studios and theaters watching his protegés at work; administrative and artistic matters keep him at his desk, too. “You have to do it,” he says. “When I am in New York, I’m in the office from nine to five, or nine to nine or to 11 in the evening. It is, you know, 24-7.” He’s proud that after some financial difficulties early on, BAC is operating in the black.

It’s not because the programming is any less innovative than it was at the start, or because prices have jumped. Composer Stephen Vitiello’s Light Readings, a multi-media sound and light installation, will be free. Tickets for Chalk and Soot, a collaboration between choreographer John Heginbotham and composer Colin Jacobsen performed by Dance Heginbotham, the string quartet Brooklyn Rider and vocalist Carla Kihlstedt, are priced at $25 and $30.

BAC, Baryshnikov says, “is now my main job.” But fans around the world know that he hasn’t entirely abandoned performing, mostly as an actor.  “It is all kind of about you and your internal quest for something,” he says. By contrast, he points out, his work at BAC includes a “very dedicated group of people. We are doing this together, and everyone has a role. We are all responsible collectively.” Then he laughs.  “Of course, because it’s my name on it, I’ll be responsible for the failures.”

Sylviane Gold has written about the arts for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Dance Magazine. Her last piece in Promenade was on ABT’s Calvin Royal III.