Mikhail Baryshnikov: ‘The thought of going back to that Brezhnev swamp was impossible’ | Ballet

Mikhail Baryshnikov, 74is the finest ballet dancer of his generation. Born in Riga, Latvia, to Russian parentshe danced with the Kirov Ballet before defecting to Canada in 1974. A dancer of short stature but huge hunger, versatility, technical mastery and personality, Baryshnikov made his career in the US, performing with New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theaterwhere he later became artistic director. He moved into contemporary dance, finding the White Oak Dance Project with Mark Morrisand now runs the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York. He still performs in experimental theatre, most recently a version of Chekhov‘s The Cherry Orchard by Ukrainian director Igor Golyak, where he shared the stage with a giant robotic arm. On screen, he has appeared in films The Turning Point and White Nightsand in Sex and the City. On 16 NovemberBaryshnikov will be awarded the Royal Academy of Dance’s Queen Elizabeth II Coronation award at Buckingham Palace.

Congratulations on receiving the RAD’s QEII award, presented for ‘outstanding services to the art of dance and ballet’. What has ballet given you, and what do you think you have been able to give ballet?
Ballet gave me my life. From the age of eight or nine, my first experiences in ballet gave me the confidence to believe I could be a part of the mysterious world of the theatre. And I mean everyone from the performers to the electricians to the cleaners that come in after a show. I’ve had a love affair with it all and still do. As for what I’ve given to ballet, I gave my excitement, I think. And gratitude for the opportunity to live and work in a unique and sometimes strange world.

How often do you dance now? I saw a video of you busting out some moves at a Vogue parade recently – you’ve still got it!
You’re very kind, thank you. I don’t dance much now, and was flattered when Anna Wintour asked me to be a part of the Vogue event. It was a kiss to New York and its crazy resilience.

How is your body feeling these days?
Every day is a new encounter, and they are not always pleasant.

With Lesley Collier in Rhapsody by Frederick Ashton at the Royal Opera House in 1980. Photograph: GBL Wilson /Royal Academy of Dance/ArenaPAL

You’ve danced so many different choreographers and styles across classical and contemporary, and you’re still performing in theater now. What drives that hunger?
I like to put myself in vulnerable positions artistically. It’s exhilarating to try and overcome the natural insecurity and fear that comes with each new project. Chasing that unknown and finding a way to make it work keeps me focused. And happy, actually.

At the Baryshnikov Arts Center you present a broad range of disciplines, but as far as I can see, not much in the way of ballet. Is there still vital art being made in the classical ballet world?
I absolutely believe that the beauty of classical ballet remains meaningful, and always will, but many ballets are creations of a certain time and place, and they don’t always translate well to modern sensibilities. There are choreographers experimenting with that, but I leave the challenge to them. Of course, if a ballet project were to be pitched to BAC it would get the same consideration we give to everyone who applies for residencies and presentations. For example, we recently presented Stravinsky Reimagined, choreographer Jennifer Weber’s take on Petrushka and The Firebird. She used several ballet dancers, and some ballet vocabulary, but mostly it’s hip-hop dancers that move the story forward. The piece feels fresh, but also loyal to Igor Stravinsky’s music and its ballet origins.

How have you seen the ballet world change in the decades since you arrived in North America?
Other than the technical level of dancers, which seems to get more advanced with every generation, I don’t think ballet has changed much. Companies are still trying to survive, still trying to feature the incredible talent they have and trying to create new work that audiences will pay to see.

With Michael Clark in class, Caviar from Solos With Piano Or Not at the Barbican, London, in 2004.
With Michael Clark in class, Caviar from Solos With Piano Or Not at the Barbican, London, in 2004. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

In recent years certain abuses of power within ballet companies and schools have come to light that had gone unreported for a long time. Do you think ballet can confront and change this culture, one that’s often exacerbated by embedded hierarchies?
The artistic process can be difficult, provocative and uncomfortable. It’s not a human rights march. But everyone deserves to be treated with respect, and excellence can always be achieved without abuse.

When you defected to Canada from the USSR in 1974, you said it was an artistic choice, rather than a political one. Was that true?
Yes. Obviously, I was not politically vocal in Russia, but when I had the opportunity to stay in the west, the thought of going back to that Brezhnev swamp was impossible. I was young, in the middle of my career and I knew the clock was ticking. I wanted to travel, to work with different choreographers and to be a free person. It was as simple as that, but once I made the choice, in the eyes of the USSR it was an act of civil disobedience.

What did you sacrifice for the career you’ve had in the US?
Amazingly, I don’t feel I’ve had to sacrifice anything. There were friends and mentors whom I deeply loved that I had to leave, but I was able to reconnect with many of them later on, so I have been extremely fortunate.

With Emily Coates in Early Floating by White Oak Dance Project at Sadler's Wells, London, in 2002.
With Emily Coates in Early Floating by White Oak Dance Project at Sadler’s Wells, London, in 2002. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

You have been clear about your feelings on Russia’s current politics, and the fact that prominent Russians should speak out against the war [in Ukraine]. Do you feel that enough people are doing this, and is it making any difference?
It will never be enough until the current Russian regime ends, but of course, it takes extraordinary courage to speak up. We can all look to Alexei Navalny for guidance on this. He says, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good people to do nothing. So don’t be inactive.”

What are you doing with your charity True Russia?
True Russia is not a political organisation. It was formed primarily to help refugees fleeing war in Ukraine, but it also supports others forced to leave Russia because of their opposition to the war and the current regime.

In the current state of the war, is it possible to have some hope?
I choose to believe that Ukraine will prevail, and that Russians will be able to determine their own future without an authoritarian government.

To return to art, what interests you now in terms of performing: what do you still want to do and learn?
I want to work as long as I’m capable and interested. Whatever lessons that brings will be a sort of humble spiritual exercise. I’m currently preparing a play written by Yasushi Inoue called The Hunting Gun. It will be directed by French-Canadian François Girard and co-star the phenomenal Japanese actor Miki Nakatani. It will premiere in New York this spring. And, of course, I’m always connected with everything going on at BAC which is a full-time job.

Do you have any intention of retiring from the stage?
When it happens, I’ll let you know.

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