Mikhail Baryshnikov as Benedict XVI and Kaspars Znotiņš as Georg Gänswein in The White Helicopter at the New Riga Theater

(Joan Acocella’s article appeared in the New York Review of Books, 5/14.)


The White Helicopter

a play by Alvis Hermanis, at the New Riga Theater, Riga, Latvia, opened November 21, 2019, with additional performances planned for 2020

(The theater is temporarily closed.)

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 or even just a dancer—even a great dancer—but a metaphor, for all the intelligence, energy, and allure that a human being might aspire to.

Baryshnikov returned to ABT in 1980, now as the company’s artistic director, and remained there until 1989, at which point, having had several operations on his knees, he pretty much abandoned classical dance. This was not shockingly early. He was forty-one. Most ballet dancers quit by the age of forty-five or so, for the same reason he did. They can’t hack it anymore, physically. Then, typically, they go on to something less interesting. If they are big stars, they may be asked to direct a company. Far more often, they simply teach, or find a hedge-fund manager to marry.

But Baryshnikov, though he retired from ballet, did not retire from dancing. He just switched to other kinds of dance. Practically the minute he left ABT, he got on a plane and flew to Brussels, where he went to work as a guest artist for his friend Mark Morris, whose modern-dance company was headquartered at that time at Belgium’s royal theater, the Monnaie. (At one point, Baryshnikov was to have been the Nutcracker in Morris’s Hard Nut, which premiered at the Monnaie, but his knee problems scotched that plan.) In 1990, together with Morris, he founded the White Oak Dance Project, a small, rather deluxe modern-dance company (live music; private planes, if they needed one). He also did tours with people he admired—Tharp, the postmodernist Dana Reitz, the kabuki star Tamasaburo Bando—and he made guest appearances with Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, and, above all, Morris.

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