sun 27/05/2018

theartsdesk Q&A: Mikhail Baryshnikov, Part 1 | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Mikhail Baryshnikov, Part 1

theartsdesk Q&A: Mikhail Baryshnikov, Part 1

First part of a special close-up with the great dancer, whose birthday was this week

The great dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov (b. 1948) marked his 62nd birthday last Wednesday. Even more than Nureyev, Baryshnikov entered the popular mind as something more than a matchless ballet dancer. With his popstar looks and magnetic attraction for women, he has been embraced the world over as a cultural icon of his era, a symbol of political freedom, a Soviet paragon turned go-getting American capitalist, an Oscar-nominated film star and a Tony-nominated stage actor, as well as an irresistible, airborne fantasy lover. In ballet Baryshnikov is the lodestar of male dancing, his videos and youtubes avidly parsed by young lads from Cuba to Australia for the secrets of dance magic. Then he spent his fame and huge fortune on pursuing modern dance, ignoring boundaries between classical and contemporary choreography as confidently as in 1974 he had leapt the Iron Curtain from East to West.

In celebration of a uniquely fascinating star and a phenomenally focused mind, here is the first of a two-part edition of transcripts from interviews I had with him for Daily Telegraph features in 1993, 1996, 1999 and 2004, where he talked about his life and motivation: as Soviet defector, ballet superstar, modern dance superstar, and now arts impresario and producer. In this first part, he talks about his childhood and training, his defection, his relationship with Nureyev, his stage fright and his ballerinas. In Part 2, his friendships with Balanchine and Ashton, dancing with NYCB and ABT, superstardom and his breakthrough into modern dance.

 

Youth and Training at the Kirov

 

pushkin__BaryshISMENE BROWN: Would you tell me how you were first struck by ballet?

MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV: I was 10 or 11 and saw it in the theatre. That was it. I was dancing in a little children’s group. There are a lot of them in Russia, doing Georgian dances or Ukrainian dances. I liked to be in a group. It was Nutcracker or an opera, but the stage experience was extremely arresting. It turns your life over, focuses your life even at age 10 or 11.

You had no other career in mind?

I was interested in football, I sang in a boys choir, I learned gymnastics. I was a busy little boy [laughs].

A happy little boy?

Yes, I was, I was. Until the death of my mother [she committed suicide when Baryshnikov was 11], and then life sort of changed... but life went on. It was a difficult time. My father remarried. She was a very nice woman but there were family problems, and I simply spent all my free time in the theatre.

He was a military man, high rank. We didn’t have a beautiful apartment, we lived in a communal apartment in two little rooms, my stepbrother, my father, mother, four of us with a communal kitchen with five other families. My stepbrother’s father died in the second World War, so my mother was a widow with a son, and my father had been married before too. They settled in Latvia [where Baryshnikov was born] and he was sent to teach in military school.

What did he think about his son doing ballet?

He was not extremely pleased, I would say. But finally he was proud of me.

It’s interesting. The male dancers who deeply feel the emotional depth of classical ballets are very often Russian. It’s striking among visitors in London, who are often very good technically, but the response to the pretence of ballet, if you like, the way it can unlock you, seems to be felt more by the best Russians.

I think it’s that special relationship between the student and the teacher. In Russia, it’s traditional to have an immensely intense relationship.

Like you and your teacher Alexander Pushkin? [Pushkin was also the teacher of Nureyev. The picture above shows young Baryshnikov in class with Pushkin.]

Well, yes, but all good teachers had this. You felt part of their lives, and the urgency of instruction, and especially the privilege of being chosen from 1,000 kids to go to the best school in the world. This gives the young people, or used to give, an extraordinary vibration that dance is something special. Somehow from a very young age, for the most gifted, something happens with your attitude, in respect of the craft and its inspirational direction. And years of a very personal relationship with your teachers, which at a human level can be a very emotional, sometimes disturbing experience. Because it’s your most fragile years, 12, 13, 14, 16, and you become a little person of the theatre. You know, I would separate a little bit the Russian school from everything else, because especially at that period, life was a little bit miserable, and the magic of the theatre, magic of the dance, was so overwhelming to the young soul.

I'd like to ask you about Pushkin. A huge figure for you.

Yes.

Is there something he gave you that no other teacher gave? Because there were, as they say, “Pushkin men”.

There were quite a few in regional companies and a lot of them teaching now. Leading dancers, even people who finished schooling with other people in the Kirov studied with him. And they all admitted when they started to work with him in the theatre in his soloist class that they called themselves “Pushkin's people”. There was something about it... that formula of connecting steps in the most natural and personal way to you, he made those connections very clear, and without any technical complications. Somehow he allowed people to find their own way how to dance, and make those connections internally.

His combinations were very simple. He was not very talkative in class. Some people get very technical: "this, that, bub-bub-buh”. There was room for silence in his class in many instance. He knew exactly when to say something. There was a famous joke about it - a dancer and teacher, Semyon Kaplan, who was a very witty, wonderful man,  said, "All these people are talking about 'Pushkin’s people', how wonderful he is, and so I pass by his class, and he's saying just two things: 'Stand up' and 'Don't fall'!” It's a very telling joke! Because they were thinking, how the hell does he affect students like that? It was more than that, of course.

One person who was underappreciated as a teacher was Vladimir Ponomaryov, who was really like a father figure to Pushkin, and gave him his first chance to test himself as a teacher - because he became a teacher very early. When he'd just become young dancer at the company, he started replacing his teacher. So he kind of was developing that system of working  all through his life.

There was a very clear definition from Leningrad and Moscow schools - ports de bras, non-aggressive kind of dancing, non-demonstrative fluidity in the movement - this is difficult to explain to pedestrian people! There are certain quite set rules, what's good and what's bad. And you know, Pushkin's class was not that far from Shavrov's class or others who taught there [Boris Shavrov taught Yuri Soloviev, Nureyev's Kirov contemporary]. But he had certain timing and certain elements that he put together in quiet ways that related to his students.

It was the difference between academic ballet and grace's part in it?

Under it was always a message, this is what you learn, and this is not essential. But being different is essential, and interpreting what we give you your way. And to find that was essential. Because at a tender age you tend to imitate anything around you - you like somebody's dancing and you try to shape yourself what Soloviev or [Vladlen] Semyonov, or Nureyev was doing. But you forget his body is different, his coordination, his timing. It's totally senseless. Look for inspiration, yes, or technique in certain things. But you would never be a dancer just like them and the more you try to imitate this person the more ridiculous you look, because you take your own coordination away from yourself. And a lot of young dancers are trying to imitate their idols. It's like with voices - you cannot sing like Callas or Obraztsova, because you have different vocal cords. Your phrasing will already be different. All academia is just a tool.

pushkin_bookSo with a bad teacher you'd get the correct academic teaching but no help to be yourself?

I think it's sometimes an internal process that happens beyond the classroom. Because we spent a lot of time, all Pushkin’s students, at his house, or walking with him outside - he always took little walks with people. He'd suggest how you could do something yourself, your way. But his classes had certain norms of ethics, how people behaved. It was a very emotional kind of process internally - everybody had their own little problems, physical or mental or family, there'd be a lot of, practically, tears, even in the men's class. Because we were all from different countries of the Soviet Union, away from families, but with a really serious desire and respect for the man. And some days there'd be bad behaviour, but it was pushed by an overall quest for some kind of goodness. Because this man was a saint, in front of you. And we all tried to impress him somehow.

Did he encourage you to bring these feelings of unhappiness or emotion into your dancing? I'm thinking that in Britain the boys would be told, “Pull yourself together!” When he took you for walks, was it to draw you out?

It would be about what did you see, what did you think of that performance? He just wanted to find out your point of view, draw you out, why this conductor or orchestra was impressive. He was not a big theatre-goer himself, not really a very cultural man, but he knew his world, which was dance. He had a very small circle of professors and doctors - very kind of bourgeois, but lovely people. Very nice. He didn't have much family, and his wife didn't have much family. But they were in their milieu, school, and their students, who were in touch all over the world. Of course Rudolf was baby number 1. He was always in touch.

The warmth, the attention of this method of teaching sounds in a high contrast to the coldness of the Soviet system. Did other teachers do the same?

He was much softer than others. Never shouted. He couldn't even speak loud, he spoke low, he had suit and tie, he was really pedantic. If somebody behaved badly or was rude, Pushkin would withdraw, he just couldn't believe people could do that, and the person felt everybody was looking at them, and it was the worst punishment of any kind. That everybody would ignore this person - it was like... you know. That's why all the internal growth, so to speak, the maturity, happened inside class and outside, through this very simple kind of work.

Do you carry him with you?

I think I do. I remember him. Every time I warm up, go to first position, I go to combinations from my past, or variations on his combinations - and that means, automatically triggering your memories of him.

Watch Baryshnikov talking about Pushkin (youtube)

I see in young male dancers that they find it silly, to show this aspiration, to be a prince, in a sense.

You can see it. But those are shallow, and not interesting people, and maybe very physically gifted, but with a lack of this [he taps his head]. And yet there’s very talented people who are not very physically gifted. In my time to be at the Kirov theatre was like a church, a holy experience. It was really a kind of magic, to see all these people, this level of dancers. You know, 20 or 30 leading dancers were at world standard, there was nobody better practically. There were maybe a couple of people in Moscow, there was Fonteyn. But there was nobody in the world better. It was somewhere to go, somewhere to climb, to learn something...  You know I always felt privileged there - I always worked with the best people and people gave me chances to prove myself. I have been rewarded, rewarded, and they could have done nothing more for me in a way. But there is a limit and I realised I cannot live in that country.

But the system there - and I don’t know how much it has changed now - the discipline there, the need for music and art to escape into, that still seems to remain a more serious compulsion there than in the West, where it's not something much talked about.

Well, people over there in Russia are better educated. They take all kinds of knowledge, just from pure need. It is a must. You must read all these books, you must know if you are a dancer all about the history of the art, and who choreographed this or that. It’s normal in that school. And you felt privileged to be accepted in such a great school, so you didn’t waste time, because you accept that time flies. At that age, 14, 15, 16, it is built into your psyche.

Do you get that in America?

[Explodes] NO... No!

Americans don't have what you had - the structured schooling.

Even in sport. I was in sports school when I did  soccer and gymnastics, and then when I wanted to dance I was accepted to the school - everything paid. That's part of that system  and what it gave me was undeniable. To teach at any level in Russia you have to have a diploma from the conservatoire. Here everybody can teach, open a dance school, and destroy all these kids. That's why dance, classical dance, in the States is at such an amateurish level. Because there are so many people who flock to New York and audition for the company or school, but there's no system or any vision or anything. With due respect to the City Ballet school and the others, there's not one vision at all.

And will that affect ballet training and discipline in future?

Well, of course. It’s more like that in Paris Opera School, which is closest to the way Russian dancers are taught. The very powerful presence of the teacher, and of what must be done and how. And it’s a very strict discipline, and it’s a pride. It’s an early idea given you of being part of some very important, um, quest. You know, les petits rats [the youngest students of the Paris Opera Ballet school], they are running around and they know it’s an honour, it’s a privilege to be one. It’s like - you know when I was a kid I used to go to the circus, and in those circus families those kids grow up knowing nothing else but circus. I am like a circus performer. Or the big music families. You know, you belong.

What do you say to your children about being a dancer? Warn them against it?

They know pretty much how hard it is. The rest is in their hands. I just hope they would find something else, just from a purely practical reason, so as not to be speaking all the time about dance.

Do you prefer them not to see you as a dancer? Murray Perahia told me he liked his son not to know he was a pianist.

I think it’s important for children to see any work, and any work which is done well is hard work.

Is that the most important thing you would like them to know - about work?

Well, work is a concentration, and it is a devotion to your idea. A certain discipline, which I think is important. Maybe the most important. Though there are a lot of important things in life, to be a good person, to laugh, love, a lot of other things.

 

Russian Life - and Defection


What was your life like at the Kirov?

Even at 25 or 26, I couldn’t do what I wanted, I couldn’t travel, I couldn’t meet people. I made an arrangement that I would invite choreographers of my own choosing, which was extraordinarily difficult to get through the bureaucracy, but even then that wasn’t enough. I realised the limitation of it.

In the Kirov I knew almost nothing about other ballet, about American or French or English choreographers. I found out about them by talking to people or seeing glimpses on TV or pictures in magazines, or home-made films dancers did when they were abroad. Seeing the Royal Ballet in Moscow when I was in my teens, they did Ashton’s Les Patineurs. But that’s about it. A couple of ballets by Roland Petit and Balanchine, and that was our knowledge of dance in the West.

You must feel angry about that.

It’s scary to find that. Because it’s your milieu, your craft, and you don’t know anything about it apart from your school and your theatre. It’s embarrassing.

There was no question when I left that I could have spent more time there. I felt very uncomfortable over there. It’s a constant lie, constant manipulation of truth.

What if you had stayed there?

Ach, no. I don’t want to think about it. I wouldn’t be able to live there, even just to live, I don’t mean work. I was at the age that although my priority was my professional life, I left to have my life too. I wouldn’t be able to live in that society. It was very depressing all the time.

Didn’t your friends feel the same? Why did none of them do what you did?

I really don’t know. A lot of people had families, children maybe...

Did it take a great deal of courage for you to leave Russia?

No, I was not lost, I was sure about my abilities as a dancer, I wasn’t a kid. I knew what I could do, and I knew I would have a job [smiles]. I wouldn’t be on the street. In Russia because I was boyish and smallish, nobody was sure I could be a lyrical dancer. Konstantin Sergeyev [then the Kirov artistic director] thought I was more demi-caractère because I was small, puppylike - I was a bit stubby too. I was always dancing peasant pas de deux, that sort of thing, never a lead.

Sergeyev gave me little parts to keep me in line. I wasn’t pleased. I could do these things in the middle of the night with my eyes closed and I wasn’t to do Giselle, Beauty, romantic parts. Then Grigorovich asked me to join the Bolshoi so Sergeyev let me do some leading roles. That was probably my most serious victory as a dancer. Thank God I didn’t go to the Bolshoi. Sergeyev did a 180 degree turn.

Below: Baryshnikov wins the gold medal in the 1969 1st Moscow International Ballet Competition

In the West there is this idea of art being particularly inspiring to Russians, as a kind of retreat from hardship. You felt that?

Well, as I said, there was no question when I left that I could have spent more time there. I felt very uncomfortable over there. It’s a constant lie, constant manipulation of truth, let’s say. You deal with people whom you don’t necessarily admire.

It’s ironic that the West actually used defection, yours and Nureyev’s, as kind of political marketing tool, just as ruthlessly in its own way.

I think Rudolf was probably bitten with this stamp a lot, and he and Makarova took the main brunt of that. By the mid-Seventies it was common knowledge. Maybe for the first couple of years it was a bit irritating - defector, defector, defector - but after a while it gave up [laughs]. You grow up, you have to make your decision, and you have the privilege of making your first mistakes. But they are your own. You can blame just yourself from then on.

You were invited back by President Gorbachev in 1987 but you refused.

I never wanted to be a piece on a chessboard, even with a more liberal player. There was a lot of politics involved.

 The great artists who came out of Russia and made a big career abroad, one imagines they have a sentimental desire to go back to their former country, where they started.

Oh, I never had this desire. I really never had this desire. It would be a bit of a political thing - oh, I must tell you why I left, and I’ll teach you this... all that. And there is nothing to show them, in a way. It’s just my personal experience, and everybody must find their own way. And if someone wants to see something or learn something people can travel now back and forth. Companies spend months and months in Europe, the United State, South America - they can look around for themselves.

So they have no excuse for not learning.

Of course, of course.wild_boy_kirov

It’s an attitude of mind only. There is this idea of America being forward-looking and Russia being backward-looking.

It’s not just that. I think the division of Europe opinion vis-à-vis North America is ridiculous: you know, what’s “European” art and what’s “American” art and what Russia is - this is all socio-political stuff. There is such a gap in Russia, they should just catch up, go back to the beginning of the century and trace the Russian choreographers - Nijinsky, Nijinska, Massine, Balanchine etc etc, retrace this gap and then learn something. Because they went from the experiments of Lopukhov to Béjart - and there is nothing inbetween. Just dramballet. The dramas of Zakharov - this Fountains of Bakhchisarai thing, you know [laughs] - and Spartacus, just all Grigorovich’s experience. That’s what they want to “learn”, they want to experience big conceptual ballet drama, because that’s what they know... [smiles derisively]

Can you objectively assess the strength of Soviet ballet training that you had? Was it the best in the world?

Not necessarily. The way that once in a while it produces good dancers is a phenomenon normal for a 250-year tradition of selecting people in a certain way, and of the close relationship between teacher and student. It’s also like that in the French school, very strong. I don’t think Russian school is the most successful now - I would say the French are much more advanced at teaching ballet technique than Russians, they dance better with their legs. If they could combine the Russian upper body with French legs that would be the ideal school to me. Russian ports de bras are extraordinarily beautiful, the épaulement, the whole movement of the arms and waist. But from the waist down they dance not good. I think it’s something they lost in their method. They used to have stronger cleaner legs, strong hip movements. But the French upper torso is dry, not so interesting to me.

When Yuri Grigorovich was asked about the defection West of the major stars, he said Russia was a ballet factory which could produce more stars to replace them.

Ha ha. And look, that’s what his ballets look like, one big factory. It’s what these dancers look like at the Bolshoi and the Kirov, empty faces, no complexity, no grace, and bored to death.

 

Male Stars

 

mikhail-baryshnikov_albrechtYou’ve often talked about having stage fright. Do you lack confidence?

Aaah. [sighs]. Self-confidence... well, I’m not an extremely secure person. I do worry. I do worry a lot.

Somebody I read once said about you that you were lacking confidence as a performer - it was surprising. On stage you look supremely confident.

I am scared to death, the first few seconds on stage.

Why? What might happen?

I don’t know, but my stomach is empty, my heart starts to beat. It’s a good half-hour before the start that I have an anxiety attack, serious. Any dance anywhere, in a group piece even I’m very nervous.

Always?

It was always the way. Always. Of the classical roles Albrecht (pictured left) in Giselle was probably closest to making me feel exaltation on the stage, fright at the pleasure of it, that kind of thing. But not more than, say, Other Dances of Jerome Robbins, because I was part of the creation of that piece. Maybe Other Dances isn’t as important to posterity as Giselle, but for me it is, in a way.

What do you say about the rivalry that the public set up between you and Nureyev?

That was ridiculous. We were completely different dancers. I never triggered anything in him or him in me. We were friends and I learned a tremendous amount from his experience and his curiosity about modern work. And he was a workaholic.

You are not?

No. I like the creative process more than I like performing. Rudolf used to perform eight times a week. I hate that. I perform maximum three or four performances a week on tour, and when I’m not I do maybe one or two a month somewhere if I’m invited to do something interesting. I take months and months off without performing at all.

What do you do?

I take a daily class and work on a new piece or something. Rudolf never did. He was just performing non-stop, he did tours back to back.

I’m sorry for asking such a familiar question.

Listen, it’s so irritating. Sure, it was for him too, and for me sometimes.

You cannot use the words “best dancer”. It’s not a sport, there’s no score. You cannot bring a collective opinion about someone

Did you both feel it would be hard to fit in as Russians when you went to the US, with the atmosphere between the two countries as it was?

Rudolf never fitted in over there. He was an odd, odd bird. Rudolf was an extraordinary individualist. Everything should be his way. He was like that about everything, about dancing, about relationships with people. I think he lived exactly the same life in the West that he lived in the Soviet Union. He had a few families, friends in different countries who took care of him, knew all his desires and accommodated them. He’d say, “I’m coming! [Smacks hands together]. Arrange everything!” [Laughs]

I’m more... I like to settle. I like my little nest. I’m very different. What I missed was that for many years there many close friends I couldn’t see. Some of them came over, some are still there, and we’re now in touch. But that was the most difficult part for a few years.

Do you get lonely in your career when you have such status?

No, sometimes one needs loneliness. I appreciate it. One needs to recoup and think and dream, and decide what’s the next step in your life, for your family, whatever you do.

So it’s not lonely on the pinnacle as the “world’s best dancer”, as people would call you?

I never thought about it. You cannot use the words “best dancer”. It’s not a sport, there’s no score. I really seriously never think about it, you know. Look at a place like London, with so many newspapers, so many opinions about a dancer. You put a few reviews together and it looks as if all these people saw a different performance. Who decides? It’s the opinion of one individual. You cannot bring a collective opinion about someone. You dance in Paris and you know you’ll get very bad reviews and terrific reviews about the same show.

Does it get to you?

It hurts sometimes, sure. Especially when it hurts box office [laughs goodnaturedly]. Reviews can take a pleasure away from the audience. Let the audience decide whether they like it or not. Unfortunately in the States, for example, one bad review can affect the whole season. No matter how critics pretend how unimportant they are, they are important, and all dancers read their reviews, and obviously it’s not pleasant to get a bad review.

You’re very rich now, aren’t you? I read you get $20million a year from your dancewear, perfumes.

[Laughs a lot] It’s nonsense! It’s exaggeration! Maybe the whole operation gets that sort of money, but I wish it all goes in my pocket!

How do you spend your money?

I’m not a big spender. We live very comfortably in a beautiful house on the Hudson River, and I have a beautiful summer house in the French Caribbean. I think it’s enough. We don’t have aeroplanes or staff of 10.

Nice car?

Sure. I have a nice Jeep.

Not a sports car?

Ah, stop it.

Seriously, though, there is an irony in the fact that it was defectors from the USSR who came from nothing to great riches and acclaim, while great Western dancers don’t generally have that luxury. Fonteyn, Markova.

Yes, and Erik Bruhn too. They all have financial problems. Bruhn ended ok, in the end. Margot’s was the whole Tito situation. [Fonteyn’s husband was paralysed in a shooting and required expensive longterm care.] But when they were dancing full-out in their careers there was not such a big business about money.

Rudolf started that really, when Sol Hurok [the American impresario] started to introduced him. He opened this money market for a dancer, big business with big companies travelling - Russians to America, English to America, money-making machine. And then it’s who’s selling, who’s not, the big names. Compared with Rudolf, I probably didn’t work a tenth of the performances he did; he didn’t work for the money but he was well paid. And he deserved that.

Is being Russian something to do with the pride of being a male dancer? That macho thing? It feels different in England for male dancers, for instance.

No, it’s nothing to do with being Russian. For me there was no other way. I always wanted to see a woman on stage or a man on stage. A man can be feminine on stage but still be a man. And there are beautiful masculine parts in a woman too. It’s a matter of the belief that dance can do anything. And the pride of it. That’s the only way I can put it. 

 

Ballerinas

 

Who was your best partner?

[Long pause] Between Irina Kolpakova, Natasha Makarova and Gelsey Kirkland. All of them were extraordinarly important to my life. But there was also Lynn Seymour, and Antoinette Sibley [both of the Royal Ballet].

Tell me about Sibley.

[Smiles]. She is such a quiet and organised person, her concentration is exceptional on stage. She’s very disciplined inside and at the same time she’s very vulnerable. [Laughs] I had a good time with her. We’ve known each other for a long time, we met when I came for the first time with the Kirov, and I went to her rehearsal when she was rehearsing with Anthony Dowell, Romeo and Juliet or something. We had a drink together. I didn’t speak any English and we spoke a bit of French together. Then she was involved with that film, The Turning Point. I like her a lot.

And Seymour?

I did Romeo with her, believe it or not! [Laughs hugely]. It was amazing! Amazing! Because she’s such a powerful performer, you know, big woman, you know! I was nervous to partner her because Romeo’s not easy. You have a couple of difficult pas de deux and you have to make it look easy, but I just threw myself into the situation. I admire this woman. She is one of the most fascinating artists on stage.

bary_makarYou danced with Makarova at the Kirov before she defected [in 1970].

Natasha is a whole different story... [long silence] Well, I was not the most comfortable partner for her. She felt more comfortable with a bigger man who holds her so precisely, like Anthony, Ivan Nagy. Somebody who could hold her with two fingers. She’s used to that kind of attention. Our physiques were not... I was smaller. But when it clicked we really had some very good performances in Swan Lake, Giselle, and especially in some comedy - Coppélia and Fille mal gardée - because she is so funny on stage, totally free.

And Gelsey Kirkland, your ABT ballerina.

Yes... I haven’t seen her for years. I lost track of her.

You are bracketed in history with her in this extraordinary partnership.

Yeah. I think she’s one of the most... we matched very well, in a lot of different parts, classical, Balanchine. Because for her it took some time when she left Balanchine [Kirkland opened her career as the shooting star of the New York City Ballet before Baryshnikov asked her to join him at the more classical American Ballet Theater as his partner] - she had never danced anything from the Russian classics. It was working from scratch to meld our partnership, that’s why it really worked well.

Below: Kirkland and Baryshnikov in Coppélia pas de deux

 

She indicated in her book [Dancing on my Grave, an explosively confessional memoir which revealed their affair in every detail] that it was a sparky relationship between you.

No, we never really had a sparky time until the end when she was out of her mind, and that was a bit irritating from my point of view. But before, if we had little disagreements about interpretation, she was always completely professional on stage.

Did you read her book?

No, I didn’t read it. I didn’t read it.

There is little video of your partnership - that Wolf Trap one, though, is rather compelling.

Oh, but she was really sick at that time. Don’t bother to look at it - she was not in the best of shape, she was truly anorexic at that time, had no stamina, she was so thin. I suppose there is the Nutcracker film [Baryshnikov's production for ABT] which doesn’t show fully her potential. But it’s ok. There might be some Giselle somewhere on film.

Do you like being challenged by your partner?

People like Makarova and Kirkland always surprised you on stage. Margot [Fonteyn] was very steady - you knew the aura of the performance, that steadiness, that radiant quality about Fonteyn. But Kirkland and Makarova were totally unpredictable, and I liked that a lot. It worked for us. It didn’t work for Rudolf, for instance. He thought Natasha was too interpretative - he wanted her there, and if she was not exactly there it was not the most pleasant experience for him. It’s a different attitude.

Watch Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov in Act 2 of The Nutcracker in 1977

Years of a very personal relationship with your teachers can be a very emotional, sometimes disturbing experience. You become a little person of the theatre

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Comments

fantastic interview, more please. So interesting what he says about Russian upper bodies, French legs. Surprised that he singles out Sibley and Seymour among his partners (he danced with them so little - and what about some of the ABT girls eg Tcherkassky?) ...But then he himself was never much of a partner (Lesley Collier told me he was just about the worst she ever had, so selfish)

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