I posted new videos on my YouTube channel focusing on Mikhail Baryshnikov. From the start of his career in the late 1960s at the Kirov Ballet until the 1980s at American Ballet Theatre, Baryshnikov has thrilled crowds in classical ballet roles with his great athleticism exemplified by gravity defying jumps and endless turns.
These videos attempt to show how he accomplished these amazing feats. I hope the videos are of use to dancers seeking insight on the mechanics of the steps through slow motion and stop action replays; non-dancers with appreciation for his great work; and those with an interest in learning ballet terms.
This series consists of three videos: (1) turns, (2) jumps, and (3) turns and jumps combined with difficult to categorize steps. Each runs about 15 minutes and analyzes his steps, pointing out important aspects of each movement.
Working on the project brought back many memories. As a dancer at Ballet Midwest, a non-professional company in Kansas in the early 1980s, I never had the privilege of seeing Baryshnikov live. Instead, I relied on PBS performances on Betamax tapes my ballet teacher recorded. I watched the videos for hours, hoping that some his brilliance would rub off. Back at the studio, I tried out his moves; this proved to be a fruitless endeavor, but I had fun trying and this experience gave me a greater appreciation of the difficulty of the steps in addition to the art form generally.
Back then, I thought Baryshnikov was the greatest. Since my dancing days, I’ve seen hundreds of ballets from the world’s greatest dancers. Before starting this project, I wondered if his work would stand the test of time, how his dancing compares to current dancers. After watching hundreds of hours of Baryshnikov over the past several months, there’s no question he would be a superstar today as he was in his day. His technique (pointed feet, turnout, stretched line, upper body carriage) was brilliant, with each movement having a purpose. His great technique combined with superior athleticism make him the greatest ever. Most star dancers of the 1960s and 1970s have seen their level of dancing surpassed by current dancers; not so with Baryshnikov. Bottom line: after all of these years, Baryshnikov is still the man.
However, Baryshnikov wasn’t just a dancer with great acrobatic talents. He had great dramatic abilities, able to captivate a crowd and command attention by just being on stage. ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie, who danced with Baryshnikov in the late 1970s and 1980s (Born to Be Wild, Kultur, 2002) has a great quote that sums it up:
“People used to say “Misha is so fabulous because he could do a triple what-cha-call-it to the knee that doesen’t have a name.” Well, no. He was not fabulous because of that, he was fabulous because he could stand onstage and do NOTHING-and you couldn’t take your eyes off him.”
Regarding the three videos, Part I shows Baryshnikov’s remarkable turns. My favorite clips are his nine pirouettes from Don Quixote; his turns in plié from Le Corsaire; and several examples of his turns in attitude (leg bent behind him) converting to regular turns in retiré (foot touching his knee). Also, a great scene from White Nights in which has a bet with Gregory Hines on whether Baryshnikov can do 11 pirouettes. Guess who wins the bet!
Part II gives examples of his powerful jumps such as high double cabrioles (legs beating in front); tour de reins (a favorite of Baryshnikov’s); and his double jete entrelacé, a wonderful step he used often.
Part III shows off his pirouettes and tour combinations. Pirouettes followed by a double tour is an exciting sequence. The dancer generates substantial momentum from the turns, with abundant energy going into the tour from fifth position. The pirouette/tour sequence is common in male solos, particularly at the end of a solo when the dancer goes to one knee. Baryshnikov’s turn and tour combinations were spectacular. The last segment of Part III is his hard to characterize steps. With his exceptional leaping and turning abilities, Baryshnikov could do amazing things. Some of the steps were spectacular and unique, leading a viewer to ask, “That’s great! What is it?” Some of the clips are wild.
I’ve watched a number of Baryshnikov videos and movies. Here is my best of Baryshnikov library:
World’s Young Ballet, from 1969, Kultur Video, 1969
This is a documentary on the 1969 Moscow International Competition of Ballet Artists. The film shows 21-year-old Baryshnikov in several clips from Solor’s solo from La Bayadére and Vestris. It is easy to see that his technique was vastly superior to the rest of the competition, way ahead of his time.
Baryshnikov at Wolf Trap, from 1976, Kultur Video, 1976
This is Baryshnikov’s American television debut, consisting of four works with Gelsey Kirkland and Marianna Tcherkassky. The 50 minute video presents Coppelia and Don Quixote Pas de Deux along with Le Spectre de la Rose and Vestris. This is vintage Baryshnikov at the peak of his career in his late 20s. Vestris is particularly impressive, filled with dramatic action interspersed with impressive dancing.
Turning Pointe, from 1977, 20th Century Fox, 1977
Turning Pointe was nominated for 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture, with Baryshnikov nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and Leslie Browne for Best Actress in a Supporting Role (the movie shares the dubious distinction with The Color Purple as having the most Academy Award nominations without a single win). It is a great movie about choices in life and resulting consequences, with Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine, directed by Herbert Ross (Footloose, Steel Magnolias). The dance clips are stunning from not only Baryshnikov but Fernando Bujones, Richard Cragun, Peter Martins, Suzanne Farrell. Starr Danias, Alexandra Danilova, Antoinette Sibley are also in the film.
ABT Giselle from 1977, Bel Canto, 1988
This is a memorable Giselle which originally aired on the PBS series, Live from Lincoln Center. It stars Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova, with Martine van Hamel as Myrta and Kirk Peterson and Marianna Tcherkassky in a wonderful Peasant Pas de Deux. Deeply moving, passionate, technically flawless, this is a must see. Unfortunately, it was only released on VHS. Bits and pieces are on the web. VHS tapes can be found on Ebay and it is possible to convert to a not so great quality DVD. Nonetheless, a poor quality DVD of this performance is worth it.
ABT The Nutcracker from 1977, Kultur Video, 2004
This is Baryshnikov’s initial effort in choreography. Baryshnikov is The Nutcracker and Gelsey Kirkland is Clara. The work is innovative and complex, a holiday delight. In this version, The Nutcracker is played by Baryshnikov throughout, unlike the Balanchine version in which the Prince is played by a boy in Act I during the Battle Scene. It takes a man to take out the Mouse King and Baryshnikov is up to the task.
ABT Don Quixote, from 1984, Kultur Video, 2003
Baryshnikov was the Artistic Director at ABT in 1984 and this was his version of the work. With Cynthia Harvey, there is a lot of high-flying leaps and turns. Baryshnikov’s Act II solo as a playful, drunk Basil entertaining villagers, is one of the greatest solos in ballet history, filled with difficult and creative steps with dramatic comic touches. Pure brilliance.
White Nights, from 1985, Sony Pictures, 1985
Baryshnikov stars with tap legend Gregory Hines in this movie, directed by Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman, Ray). Baryshnikov portrays Nikolai Rodchenko, a defector from the Soviet Union. Gregory Hines-who died in 2003-plays Raymond Greenwood who left the U.S. for the Soviet Union. My favorite scene. The two have a bet: Rodchenko’s 1980s boom box against 11 Rubles on whether he can do 11 pirouettes. Lou Reed’s cool My Love is Chemical plays in the background. Baryshnikov’s reaction to his winning the bet is great fun, until his former love interest (played by Helen Mirren, Hackford’s wife) interrupts his celebration. Here are clips to the movie set to Lionel Richie’s Oscar Award winning score Say You Say Me. This is an underrated movie, definitely worth look. Even if you don’t like the plot, you will be rewarded with great dancing from Baryshnikov and Hines.