The White Helicopter
In 1967 Clive Barnes, of The New York Times, flew home from a trip to Russia and reported that in a class at the Vaganova Choreographic Institute, the Kirov Ballet’s school, he had encountered “the most perfect dancer I have ever seen.” That was a weighty announcement. Barnes, the Times’s lead dance critic, had seen a lot of dancers, and this one, Mikhail Baryshnikov, was only nineteen. Because Baryshnikov became an extraordinary dancer so young, many people failed to realize he was also an extraordinary actor. One of the earliest performances I ever saw him in was a Soviet movie, Fiesta (1971), an adaptation of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. He played Pedro Romero, the teenaged matador whom Brett Ashley seduces, and he was a thrill: handsome, open, and innocent, a flower awaiting the scythe. Acting was not new to him. It was part of his training, as it was, and is, for almost all serious ballet students in Russia. And dramatic inventiveness was central to his breakthrough role at the Kirov, as Albrecht in Giselle, where he turned the male lead, traditionally played as an aristocratic cad—an interpretation that supported Soviet ideology—into a lovestruck boy.
Once he defected to the West in 1974, Baryshnikov again and again triumphed as an actor-dancer, in new ballets such as Twyla Tharp’s Push Comes to Shove (American Ballet Theatre, 1976), in which he played a sort of confused hipster, and also in nineteenth-century ballets such as the Russian Don Quixote, of which he made a new production for American Ballet Theatre in 1978, dancing the part of Kitri’s lover, the barber Basilio, himself and shocking that tired old piece back into life.1 He bit off those assignments with gusto. Good ballet, bad ballet—it didn’t matter. He filled each role to its very skin. When, in 1978–1979, he abandoned his opera-house repertory to go to New York City Ballet and dance in George Balanchine’s largely nonnarrative works, he was sometimes scolded by critics for doing too much acting—for making faces, as they say in the trade.
Some critics, when they could, described his achievements in the classroom vocabulary,2 not, I believe, because they thought the reader would understand those words but because the words sounded rich and fine enough to convey the critic’s astonishment that Baryshnikov could draw out of his body so elaborate and poetic a response to his dramatic situation. After all, he was only a Sevillian barber (Don Quixote) or a boy in love (Giselle) or something like that. Yet when he performed those beautiful, clear, fantastically difficult steps, he was no longer just a barber…
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