This is the first in a two-part series.
by ALEX CARNEVALE
That sort of double vision happens to me all the time on stage. One part of me is dancing, the other observing from the side. This control protects you from an overdone, vulgar presentation. You constantly keep yourself under fire, as it were; you watch, with an ironic eye, as if saying: 'Well, well, so you can do it, but don't show it too much.' Nabokov rarely displays his technique, but his prose is masterful. That's the way it should be - be a master but don't show your mastery.
Mikhail Baryshnikov's mother looked exactly like him. She abandoned the family when he was just twelve, chafing at the bonds of the Soviet Union. His father never supported his dancing until he became known the world over.
At the Riga dance academy, students embarked on a nine-year program, starting at the age of ten. Baryshnikov was old to enter the academy, but he quickly caught up to his peers, entering the advanced class before the year was up.
Many of Russia's finest performers had already abdicated to the West, but the pipeline closed up at the beginning of the 1940s. Stalin's reign turned the art of dance into little more than illustration of familiar stories and folk tales, meant to emphasize the superiority of the region.
Baryshnikov's early performances were reserved in light of this. His technical acumen has never been disputed, and his best role during this period was as the barber Basil in Don Quixote. He showed his first flashes of stardom in a 1969 production of Romeo and Juliet, where he played the showy role of Mercutio. Because Romeo had previously been banned in the country, the producers only risked one performance.
Many artists take decades to come into their own right, but while Baryshnikov was no young choreographer, he could slip into any role with the facility of the chamoleon. In even the simplest part he showed a power and agility lacking in most of his peers, and even the party saw his potential as a distinctly Russian figure. The way he performed the part, it was never a mask.
It was clear the Kirov theater was now his to command. He was the focus, now, given an apartment by the state along with a healthy salary. A return to the Bard proved difficult, as Kirov's 1970 production of Hamlet was something of a disaster: even the ghost danced, and important monologues were conveyed by jittery, scissor-like leaps. Still, Hamlet was politically safer than Romeo, seeming as it did to the Russian eye a work of pure fantasy. The play opened, in this iteration, with the funeral of Hamlet's father, a pallid start to a most dreary affair.
The press, controlled as it was by the party, issued nothing but raves. Repulsed by these results, Baryshnikov pulled out of the production and began filming a Russian adaptation of The Sun Also Rises. The evolving demands of his stardom meant he was acting more than ever before, and it was no surprise he was a natural at that as well.
But offstage, the atmosphere at the Kirov was toxic. A notable defector among the dancers, Natalie Makarova, escaped her chains because the KGB was too intent on following around Baryshnikov.
Next to go was the Kirov's chief choreographer, who followed Nikita Khrushchev on his way out of power. Konstantin Sergeyev was replaced by a political choice, Vlad Semenov. "Life in the Soviet Union may be likened to treading on a rotten floor that may collapse at any moment. You fall through and never get out of the cellar again," defector/Baryshnikov biographer Gen Smakov writes. Regardless of the politics, the fact remained that Sergeyev's creative energies seemed exhausted and to make use of the theater's talents, a change was needed at the helm.
You can guess what happened instead. The director of the Kirov was no longer a favorable post and few with any talent applied. Igor Belsky was finally brought on, and Baryshnikov hated the man from the moment he set eyes on him. They both suffered equally for this dislike, and Baryshnikov mired in depression. But defection was not really an option — the dancer was watched at all times. Still, he asked friends if they thought he could be successful in New York. All were enthusiastic, which seemed to only deepen his despair.
Then his theater toured Montreal. By summer he was performing with Natalie Makarova in Giselle in New York. His friends told him never to return, and he listened to their advice. The next two years were filled with a diversity of roles he could never have imagined in his native country.
1974 July 27th Giselle
August 5th La Bayadere
August 9th Don Quixote
October 27th Coppelia
October 30th Theme and Variations
December 26th Les Patineurs
December 28th La Fille Mal Gardee
1975 January 4th La Sylphide
January 9th Le Jeune Homme et la Mort
January 11th Le Corsair
May 20th Vestris
July 23rd Shadowplay
September 22nd Le Pavillon d'Armide
September 22nd Le Spectre de la Rose
September 26th Swan Lake
December 30th Awakening
1976 January 6th Hamlet Connotations
January 9th Push Comes to Shove
January 13th Medea
May 9th Other Dances
May 11th Pas de "Duke"
June 15th The Sleeping Beauty
June 21st Petrouchka
June 21st Le Sacre du Printemps
July 12th Once More, Frank
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
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