Mikhail Baryshnikov is annoyed with himself. When we meet, it’s at the world premiere of his play The Old Woman, an adaptation of a short story by the Soviet surrealist writer Daniil Kharms.
He can still hear the applause as he sits in front of his dressing-room mirror, slowly scraping off the thick layer of kabuki-style white makeup on his face. Tonight is only the first show of a lengthy tour and yet he is already thinking: ‘What next?’
‘As soon as I have performed it once, my immediate response is to plan the next project.’
This relentless drive must be what has pushed Baryshnikov to reinvent himself so many times. As a soloist for the Kirov (now Mariinsky) ballet, he was hailed as the greatest dancer of all time. Then, aged 26, on tour with the company in Canada, he ran away.
More than politics, it was his desire to experiment with new styles of dance that led to his dramatic defection. In Toronto in 1974, he slipped through a crowd surrounding the Bolshoi’s bus and ran three blocks to a waiting car. It was one of the most electrifying episodes in the cultural history of the Cold War.
In New York, where he settled, he pushed himself to the limit with contemporary choreographers such as George Balanchine, Twyla Tharp and Jerome Robbins, risking serious damage to his extraordinary body. He then went on to run the American Ballet Theatre for nine years.
Even the greatest dancers have a shelf life. But at 66, Baryshnikov shows no sign of stopping. He has turned from ballet to acting, which he describes as ‘jumping from one mountain to another’.
As a result, there was that infamous turn as Carrie Bradshaw’s Mr Wrong, the tortured artist Alexander Petrovsky, in Sex and the City. It was a piece of casting perhaps inspired by Baryshnikov’s own somewhat legendary reputation with the opposite sex. Now happily married to the former ballerina Lisa Rinehart (they have three grown-up children), he was previously linked to sirens such as Natalia Makorova, his partner on stage, Isabella Rossellini and Ursula Andress. His eldest daughter, Alexsandra, is from a relationship with the actress Jessica Lange.
He is a world away from the self-obsessed egoism of his Sex and the City character. His manner is personable and his talk is peppered with dry humour and the odd melancholic Russian expression. ‘Davno i ne pravda: it was so many years ago that it is not true,’ is his reply to one question about his past. Perhaps it is this attitude that pushes him to reinvent himself every few years, to create a new story.
He prefers practising to performing. ‘Rudi wanted to be on stage every day,’ he says of Nureyev, whose abilities Baryshnikov arguably equalled. ‘I like the process of planning, knowing you start rehearsing tomorrow and wondering who will be your partner, who will design the piece.’ His blue eyes are lit up. He picks his projects carefully, and needs to develop trust with someone before he agrees to work with them. ‘It’s like the beginning of dating,’ he says matter of factly. In case you’re wondering, for him this means eye contact, a ‘tremor’ in the conversation and a certain ‘vibe’. He doesn’t need a second date to know if something will work — ‘I have pretty good instincts.’
He probably knows what he’s talking about. He has usually met his collaborators socially, first — ‘You hang out and figure out what this person is about. I have never approached anyone I didn’t know about a project.’ And he has quite a contacts book to plunder. The story of his defection, combined with his roguish charm, captivated the cultured classes. He soon counted Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Joe Pesci and Christopher Walken among his friends: ‘I met that group kind of by chance in my first few days in New York,’ he remembers. ‘We used to hang out in the same place, the old Mayflower Hotel, round the corner from the Lincoln Centre [the home of the New York City Ballet]. We would have dinner, go see the shows, horse around and have fun. That was actually a big comfort in the beginning.’ He has stayed in touch with them — he co-owned a restaurant with De Niro.
He’s always been almost more comfortable with actors than dancers, though he was close to the great choreographer Merce Cunningham, who died in 2009. He stays in touch with Alexei Ratmansky, the former artistic director of the Bolshoi, and was pleased when he left the company and its difficult politics behind. Ratmansky’s successor, Sergei Filin, was the victim of a vicious acid attack last year — Baryshnikov describes it as ‘ghastly vaudeville’.
Ratmansky has since joined the American Ballet Theatre, where Baryshnikov was principal dancer and then artistic director during the 1980s. Baryshnikov tried to make changes to the company, to rely less on guest stars and more on American talent. He hated the business side of the job, however — ‘There is so much focus on getting the money on the table. It’s pretty ugly,’ he recalls.
So after quitting his ABT post a year before his ten-year tenure ran out, he threw himself back into what he calls the ‘guts’ of the creative process. With the choreographer Mark Morris, he founded the White Oak Dance Project — a roving troupe of stars with no permanent base.
A psychologist might delve for reasons behind all this questing for the next project, but Baryshnikov has little truck with such indulgences; he has lived in America, Baryshnikov remains profoundly Russian Despite the many years he has lived in America, Baryshnikov remains profoundly Russian in the US, he remains profoundly Russian. Nevertheless, there was a formative tragedy in his childhood: his mother killed herself when he was 11. In the past he has spoken illuminatingly about her death: ‘All the sentiment about, you know, children losing their parents for one reason or another, it’s a very North American kind of psychology. I accept it as rules of life. And I survived, and that’s what’s the most important. I adored my mother, and I will always have extraordinary memories about her and remember her, and she opened the doors for me to appreciate arts.’
After the European tour, The Old Woman will move to New York, where Baryshnikov still lives. It will no doubt come as a relief, since he hates being on the road: ‘I get homesick, I want to see my children, my wife.’ At home, he still does daily ballet training, using his grand piano as a barre, and loves relaxing in the bath listening to the World Service: ‘The English tell it like it is,’ he says.
When he is not touring, his nine-to-five job is at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, a not-for-profit organisation he founded to provide affordable performance space. Thanks to his Sex and the City role, he has connected with a whole new generation of potential arts philanthropists. He also put his own money into it, selling part of his collection of paintings to raise it. ‘Old art should make new art,’ he says.
Joseph Brodsky, the great Russian poet, once observed of his fellow émigré and friend: ‘The boy got lucky.’ As anyone who has seen Baryshnikov on stage will testify, his luck is ours too.
The Old Woman is at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from 22 to 29 June (www.bam.org).