Gennady Smakov's "Baryshnikov" tells us little about the phenomenal Russian dancer that hasn't been revealed in the media, and a lot about a certain kind of writing induced by the hermetic, intense world of European ballet. The author says he has written "a somewhat personal introduction to Baryshnikov's career thus far," and the equivocal sound of this statement gives you an idea of the book's problems.
A great deal of European dance writing has been done by privileged insiders. Typically, a ballet lover gets into print on behalf of a favorite ballerina or choreographer or company, becomes known as advocate and expert, and finds himself a ballet critic. Europeans don't believe anyone can be informed and responsible as a dance writer without close connections to the dancers and their working-social lives. By some mysterious act of faith, the public then relies on these partisans and proselytizers to be arbiters of what is good and what is bad in dance.
Smakov's book is a product of these potentially clashing interests, and its crucial drawback is that he's unable to settle on any one voice or stance for himself in reference to his subject. The narrative seems to trace the sequence of Baryshnikov's professional life, but it's told in telephonic spurts of confidentiality, filled in with quasi-journalistic we might expect from a critic.
We don't know exactly how close to the dancer Smakov was. They were certainly out of touch during the year between Baryshnikov's defection in 1974 and Smakov's departure to the West, but there are other gaps that can't be explained by their lapsed sociability. Some choreographers and ballets are mentioned, others are not. The same with friends, lovers, collaborations, tours. Smakov doesn't undertake the meticulous role of historian or biographer that could transform the random insights of acquaintanceship into a more connected summation of a personality. The book has an air of fitful and unexamined loyalty, like an article in a fan magazine.
The opening chapters, about Baryshnikov's years in Russia, are a long recitial of palace intrigue, the trials of a young prodigy being manipulated by a system that clings to obsolete forms and practices under the churlish eye of the KGB. We've heard about these politics before, especially in Valery Panov's "To Dance" and Natalia Makarova's "Dance Autobiography" (edited by Smakov). The one thing that could be added here -- Baryshnikov's own story of his early training, disillusionment and flight -- is missing, and we get instead the familiar tale of artistic repression and stagnation that all emigres tell.
One of Smakov's devises for filling the irremediable emptiness where Baryshnivkov's commentary should be is to set up straw men. He depicts his hero striking out against a series of enemies in order to win a never-ending struggle for self-realization. Choreographers don't know how to use him, typecasting restricts his roles, he can never find the right partner, his visions outstrip his ability to see them carried out. This gives the book a moral tone, a fase sense of drama. But Baryshnikov has been consistently uncomplaining, circumspect about his disagreements, respectful about collaborations, even unsuccessful ones. He appears to be the least ruthless, the most serious and generous superstar in the business. It's his fans who spice up his reticence with hints of scandal.
It was the fans saw his move to the New York City Ballet in 1978 as some evil plot, and other fans who sensed another conspiracy in his return to American Ballet Theater as director a year later. Smakov devotes a chapter to Baryshnikov's ill-fated tenure with the NYCB, attempting somehow to blame the Balanchine style of choreographing and dancing for Baryshnikov's difficulties in adapting his differently trained body to it. This part of the book is loaded with inaccuracies, insinuations and bogus reportage, all aimed at showing up Balanchine ballet as inexpressive, eccentric, detrimental to individuality and in geneal unworthy of Baryshnikov's talents. Despite Smakov's tactics, Baryshnikov himself has never been less than admiring of Balanchine, and no doubt disappointed the author when he commented on the misadventure: "I'll never regret that I worked for him. He is a great man and a great choreographer."
All of Baryshnikov's other accomplishments in repertory and directing are seen by Smakov as prodigious events. According to him, Baryshnikov doesn't just blunder along like the rest of us from one thing to the next, he rises toward some foreordained pinnacle of greatness higher than the greatnesses before. One soon begins to see his talents accumulating toward the role as head of Ballet Theater that he's undertaking this year, and to wonder if Smakov's book isn't meant to certify this reign just as it begins.
Nobody wishes for the reform of Ballet Theater more than I do, and if Baryshnikov can accomplish that, all ballet lovers in America will thank him. bBut I think he has more sense, more integrity and more creative resources for the job than this book comes close to suggesting. In protecting Baryshnikov's privacy, if that's what he's doing. Smakov deepens his inaccessibility, enhances his allure as star. He also imposes controversy and misapprehension rather than giving any new human substance to the powerful spirit we see on the stage.