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DANCE; Behind Every Step, Life’s Twists and Turns by Mikhail Baryshnikov 1998

September 23, 2012

Mikhail Baryshnikov Photo by Richard Avedon

Published: April 05, 1998 New York Times

WHEN I first started going to the ballet, the thing that drew me back to it was not just the beauty of the performances but the fact that that beauty seemed personal to me. It is like people who collect stamps. In those little pictures they see details — how many lines are laid down to make an ear or a mustache, and the inking, and the feel of the paper — that they think only they can cherish. Only to them are these things so precise and so moving. So it was for me with ballet. I was sure that I was the only one who saw how the fairy, when she raised her wand, lowered it again in a special kind of arc, first fast, then slower. That was mine, and full of mystery.

When I entered the ballet school in Riga, I began to see all this from the inside, to see the mechanics, how that arc of the wand was taught. But ballet didn’t become less mysterious to me. It became more so. Here was a community of people, very secluded, who dedicated themselves to this art form. They were servants of something — messengers. They had a duty, and not to everyday life.

Mikhail Baryshnikov rehearsing Le Jeune Homme et la Mort with Roland Petit and Bonnie Mathis. Photograph by Martha Swope (sometime between 1974 and 1976).

I thought, what a beautiful way this was to live. They all had their own places in the company, each place very important and needed, whether it was a corps de ballet dancer or a coryphée or a character dancer or a ballerina. They spent pretty much all day in the theater, and then at night they gave the performance. Hundreds of people, if you include the orchestra and the stagehands, and they all worked and worked, and then for three hours at night they came together and did this thing that was not about them but about an idea. And the audience came to see it, and then it was gone. It was a memory. The whole thing seemed to me like a ritual, haunting.

That wasn’t the only mystery. The ballets, too, in their stories, were about serious and personal matters. ”Giselle” and ”The Sleeping Beauty” — these had to do with the great blessings and disasters that are the center of our lives, the things one is usually too embarrassed or too frightened to talk about. There they were, in crystallized form.

And again, it seemed very personal, because it was contained in the bodies of the dancers, and the body is so revealing. When a dancer comes onstage, he is not just a blank slate that the choreographer has written on. Behind him he has all the decisions he has made in life. He has already met a million forks in the road. Each time, he has chosen, and in what he is onstage you see the result of those choices. You are looking at the person he is, the person who, at this point, he cannot help but be. All the experiences he has had as a child and as a teen-ager, all the images that his body has accumulated, these come up as colors in the dancing, giving it sparkle and complexity. They come out through the eyes, through the pores.

Exceptional dancers, in my experience, are also exceptional people, people with an attitude toward life, a kind of quest, and an internal quality. They know who they are, and they show this to you, willingly. But all dancers are self-revealing, and this is true no matter what the style of dancing. Whether it is ballet or Cunningham technique or Indian or Balinese dancing, the character of the dancer pours through. Within a minute, you are receiving a personal message.

Jerome Robbins & Mikhail Baryshnikov. Photo: Martha Swope

Copyright $; Robert Greskovic, 1998.

Mikhail Baryshnikov is the founder and director of the White Oak Dance Project. The following essay is excerpted from the foreword to ”Ballet 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Ballet,” by Robert Greskovic, just published by Hyperion.

From → Dance History

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