In the 10 meteoric years since Mikhail Baryshnikov's arrival in the West, he has established himself as the supreme classical dancer of an epoch. What about the next 10?
To settle speculation about his future as a performer, let it be known that Baryshnikov, who's also artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, has this to say:
"I still would like to explore further my curiosity about the stage. Right now, I'm fighting to get myself back to shape. It will take quite a few months -- I don't know if I'll make it before the end of the present season -- but I will, I will do it!"
Baryshnikov danced only sparingly earlier this year, still nursing injuries, and once he started work last summer on the movie "White Nights" -- a project that called for only small amounts of dancing -- his normal regime of practice virtually ceased. Although he won't be performing with ABT during the company's current three-week Kennedy Center Opera House engagement -- the first time he'll not be dancing here since his initial visit in 1974 -- and is not scheduled to dance anywhere else on the ABT tour, his determination to resume seems absolute, and it registers in his voice.
In a talk last week, Baryshnikov settled a number of other questions lately grinding through the rumor mill. He has no intention of leaving his directorial post at ABT for the foreseeable future. Rather, he feels committed to the troupe, and wants to continue pursuing the goals he set for ABT when he took over in 1980. Making a film was rewarding but also trying in many ways; nevertheless he's open to considering new movies, along with other enterprises outside ABT.
He has no wish to do more choreographing, however. Though his production of "Cinderella" -- which premiered at the Kennedy Center last December and is set for seven performances this week starting Wednesday -- was a box-office success, he says: "I want to see my face on stage again, but I'm not sure about my ballets."
In general, though, Baryshnikov looks back upon his 10 years in the western world with deep satisfaction, as well he might. One sign of this is a personal move, one of the few aspects of his private life he disclosed -- he's on his way to becoming an American citizen.
"I don't have any regrets," he says of his fateful leap to the West and all that has ensued. Memories of the urge toward freedom -- artistic and personal -- that drove him here still burn bright. "Of course it was painful for me for the first couple of years, leaving everything behind, but I don't think in those terms anymore. I just chose the only way. In Russia, I was living from one day to the next. It is scary when somebody tells you you have to do this or that with your career, your private life. I didn't want to do what I have to do, but what I want to do."
Still, liberty too, in Baryshnikov's estimate, can be wasted and requires care. "You have to listen to yourself, to where life is taking you," he says. "You can't just flit like a bird from one tree to another -- a life should be thought out. I'm now entering my third decade as an adult person. I was 10 years in Leningrad seven as a dancer with the Kirov Ballet, from which he defected on a Canadian tour , 1964 to 1974; I've been here for 10. Now I feel I have to start all over again -- I have to reorganize my life altogether. It's been a wonderful 10 years, but now is a time for many decisions."
There have been down sides to his experiences in the West, Baryshnikov concedes.
"There were many upsetting things, relationships with some people that didn't work out as I might have wanted," he says. "Some roles I underdanced, some I overdanced. I would have liked to work more with Balanchine, with Jerry Robbins, with Paul Taylor -- and more and more and more. Still, maybe it's silly for me to complain -- I could retire today and be really very happy."
He can also imagine his life unfolding in other ways: "Things could have been very different for me -- there were so many seductive opportunities. I might have traveled as a guest artist, from troupe to troupe. I might have gotten stuck in Europe somewhere. I might have given up dancing, or made my own little company, or made movies, or worked in experimental theater or modern dance, or danced with Balanchine from the start."
Now, Baryshnikov feels that he's entered the last phase of his performing career, and that his approach must change. "I want to go back on stage again, but I cannot repeat what I already did, I cannot do the same ballets." Still, his motivation remains what it was when he wrote, in 1976, ". . . to me that is what a dancer's work is -- to have as large a variety of challenges as possible." What he craves, as ever, is the special excitement of working with newborn creations, in diversified idioms.
"I'm sending Christmas cards to choreographers this year saying, 'Remember me?' " he says with that still boyish chortle of his. "Just whistle, and I'll be there."
There are lots of choreographers he'd like to work with, he says, including some -- like Twyla Tharp and Jerome Robbins -- who've made ballets for him in the past, and others -- like Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor and David Gordon (whose new ballet for ABT, "Field, Chair and Mountain," had its premiere Thursday), who have not. He's also cooking up projects that may materialize within ABT or outside it; he's talking to writers, musicians and actors, scanning movie scripts and television proposals.
In the case of Tharp, things have gone beyond the mulling stage. "During this tour," he says, "I'll be commuting back and forth to New York to work with Twyla on a new ballet she'll do for me. We're starting with fiddle music, romantic music -- we don't know where it will go. I just want to spend time in the studio and see what happens."
He's adamant about not wanting to choreograph. About his "Cinderella" production, which he calls his "limping baby," he says: "If it had been a total disaster, I'd hang myself, but at least it was financially rewarding. Peter Anastos, co-choreographer of the ballet and I have changed many things since the premiere, and I think it's a better ballet now." He emphasizes how grateful he was for the support of the ABT dancers through what turned out to be mostly unfavorable reviews. Baryshnikov plans to retire the work from the repertory after this season, along with his already mothballed "Nutcracker." "I'm not ashamed of what I've done," he says, "I made the ballets because I thought it was important for the company. But I don't have any ambition as a choreographer -- in choreography, either you have it or you don't."
Baryshnikov sees himself becoming more involved with the leadership of ABT and developing its dancers; he feels it's healthier for the company to have him dancing less frequently. "I have to compromise," he says, "between my own egoistic needs for artistic activity and the needs of the company. As things stand now, the company doesn't rely on my participation in the repertory as it used to, and I think everyone feels more comfortable with this, especially the dancers. It's not just that they don't have to compete with a so-called 'superstar.' If I were fully engaged as a dancer, while still remaining artistic director, there would be inevitable tensions, and dancing isn't a hundred percent necessity for me. I can understand and sympathize with the dancers' need for individual attention and encouragement -- I know how they feel because many of them are at the stage I was in 10 years ago."
To enhance the transition to his newly conceived role at ABT, Baryshnikov earlier this year appointed John Taras, formerly a ballet master of the New York City Ballet, and Sir Kenneth MacMillan, principal choreographer of England's Royal Ballet, as associate director and artistic associate, respectively, of ABT.
"I'm very happy with the way this relationship is working out," he says. "These are two extremely important gentlemen of the theater. I needed this help, and not just because I've had to take time off to take care of my own head and heart. It's also a wonderful advantage for the dancers -- it's like going to the doctor, you know; it's always good to have another opinion."
Both men also figure significantly in Baryshnikov's repertory plans for coming seasons. He hopes MacMillan, whose "Romeo and Juliet" will conclude ABT's Kennedy Center visit in its first American production, will find time to create at least a one-act ballet for the company next season. Under discussion also is a restoration of a production of "Sleeping Beauty" MacMillan mounted while he was director of the Berlin Opera Ballet, with designs by Barry Kay.
Taras will stage Balanchine's "La Source" for ABT next season, and possibly assist with a new version of "Giselle" contemplated for a short fall series at the Metropolitan Opera House next fall. ABT choreographer emeritus Antony Tudor, whose "Dim Lustre" is being revived later this season, will remount "Undertow" for the company in '85-'86. Baryshnikov is still also thinking about his erstwhile plans for a refurbished production of "Swan Lake" involving Franco Zeffirelli (who's just finished one with ballet mistress Rosella Hightower for La Scala). Also on Baryshnikov's mind: a renewed training program for young dancers and a summertime choreographic workshop, which MacMillan may supervise.
About "White Nights," his movie with Greg Hines, Baryshnikov says:
"I don't know what kind of a picture to call it. It's not a musical, not a dance movie -- it's a political-romantic thriller with dance in it. Greg Hines plays an American ex-dancer. In my role, the only parallel with my own life is that I play a Russian dancer who has left his country. But there's no other resemblance to my past -- it's more like something that could happen to me now, today, if I happened to be in Russia.
"It was terrific working with Greg. I didn't really pick up much about tap-dancing -- it's impossible, it's such a different thing for me. I learned one little routine, and I think it was cut in half."
Twyla Tharp choreographed both solo and duo dances for Hines and Baryshnikov in the film, which probably won't be released until Christmas 1985. Baryshnikov also dances a six-minute excerpt from Roland Petit's "Le Jeune Homme et la Mort" in the course of the picture. In the movie, by the way, he doesn't wear a beard, like the one he's sporting now -- an echo of another he grew in 1978 just before the premiere of his "Don Quixote" at the Kennedy Center.
The filming -- in locations as far-flung as Scotland, northern Finland and London -- was far more taxing than Baryshnikov had bargained for. "It was really my first big film," he says. " 'The Turning Point' was like a cameo appearance by comparison, and I didn't get any experience I was able to apply to this movie. No one who hasn't done it can understand how difficult it is. After four months, I was sitting there wondering if it was worth it, or whether to continue."
He says that making the picture was an "escape" from a period in his life which he describes as "let's say, not the happiest time -- a tough time for me . . . This past year, I wasn't on stage much. There were crises at ABT, and the transition to the new administration with John and Sir Kenneth." He doesn't speak of his split with screen actress Jessica Lange, with whom he'd shared a romance since the late '70s and who bore him a daughter, Shura (Alexandra), now approaching her fourth birthday. But it's easy to imagine that it must have been a deeply traumatic wrench.
Shura, however, is a source of joy for him. Though she resides with her mother in Santa Fe, Baryshnikov spends as much time with her as he can. "I just took her for a couple of weeks' vacation to Florida," he says, with much paternal beaming. "Now we are starting to deal with taking her to school, and she'll probably start studying the violin this spring." Does she sing and dance? "Unfortunately," he says, in a mock groan. "She talks a lot -- without a Russian accent, and her grammar is better than her dad's."
As for his American citizenship, he says it would have happened a long time ago but for the fact that when he first arrived he wasn't a U.S. resident, and was unsure where he'd end up living. But he got his "green card" a few years ago, and thinks the process should wind up within the next year or two.
It's more meaningful for Baryshnikov than one might surmise. In the year of his defection, he told an interviewer, "For me ballet is everything -- ballet is my whole life." Today, asked to pick out the most significant features of the last richly textured decade, he answers: "I really found a home in this country, and I feel wonderful here, and that's the most important thing." Then he adds instantly, "And I have my daughter -- that's also the most important. Everything else is secondary." It isn't all that often that an incomparable artist puts life above art -- very likely it says something about his artistic nature as well.