(Valeria Paikova’s article appeared in Russia Beyond, 1/28; Photos: Russia Beyond. )
Mikhail Baryshnikov is not one to go unnoticed. A true living legend of ballet, he is one of the greatest dancers in modern history.
Die-hard fans of classical Russian ballet praise Baryshnikov for his powerful leaps and a lifelong passion for freedom, while his younger admirers, who first came to know him as Aleksandr Petrovsky, Carry Bradshaw’s Russian boyfriend on ‘Sex and the City’, worship him for taking contemporary ballet to a whole new level.
It seems like Baryshnikov has been swimming against the tide since childhood. He chose his battles wisely, though, and proved to be a brilliant long-distance “swimmer”. Baryshnikov’s story is an exciting tale of self-actualization and personal growth.
A star is born
Like many Soviet families of the time, Mikhail’s father was a strict military man and a devoted communist, while his mother came from a peasant background. It was she who instilled a love for the arts in Mikhail. The family lived in Riga, capital of then Latvian SSR. Baryshnikov fell in love with ballet and enrolled in his first professional dance school on his own. He told his parents that he didn’t need their moral assistance. Misha (a common short form of the Russian name ‘Mikhail’) literally proved he could stand on his own feet when he was only 9. He passed the entrance exams and was accepted.
Two years later, Baryshnikov moved to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to train at the famous ballet school (now known as the Vaganova Academy). There, he was taught by none other than Alexander Pushkin, the great Russian poet’s namesake and teacher of another ballet legend, Rudolf Nureyev, who defected to the West in 1961.
Years later, Baryshnikov himself would be recognized as one of the finest ballet virtuosos in the world, along with Vaslav Nijinsky and Rudolf Nureyev.