Mikhail Nikolaevitch Baryshnikov is one of the greatest male ballet dancers of all time, ranked with Vaslav Nijinsky and Rudolf Nureyev. Hailed for his performances with American Ballet Theatre in the 1970s and ’80s, Baryshnikov has had a wide-ranging career, spanning the realms of choreography, performance, direction, film, television and theater.
After training at the Vaganova School in Leningrad and performing with the Kirov Ballet, he famously defected to the West in 1974. He soon joined ABT, wowing ballet enthusiasts with his performances alongside partners Natalia Makarova and Gelsey Kirkland. His magnetic presence, brilliant dramatic interpretations and near-perfect technique quickly made him a star. He had the deep demi-plié, elegant lines and ballon required for an expert classicist, yet was chameleon-like in his ability to embody different choreographic styles, regal or provocative.
In 1978 he left ABT to join New York City Ballet, though he returned nearly two years later to become ABT’s artistic director. During his decade-long tenure, he revived beloved classics and commissioned new work from choreographers such as Merce Cunningham and José Limón.
He also pursued an acting career, on both stage and screen, starring in The Turning Point (1977) with Shirley MacLaine and White Nights (1985) with Gregory Hines.
Today, the 69-year-old Baryshnikov serves as artistic director of the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City, which he founded in 2005 as a gathering and creative space for dancers and other artists.Though best known for his virtuosic dancing,
Baryshnikov also choreographed, acted, curated and directed throughout his career:
- Push Comes to Shove (1976) Choreographed by Twyla Tharp to showcase Baryshnikov shortly after his arrival at ABT, this jazzy showstopper set to ragtime and Haydn highlighted his versatility against Tharp’s personal quirky vocabulary. Off-balance turns, lightning-quick directional changes, complex musical phrasing and fleeting moments of pedestrian movement provided him with the challenge he was craving prior to his defection.
- The Nutcracker (1976) Baryshnikov conceived, choreographed and directed this production of The Nutcracker for ABT. His darker, more psychologically driven version portrayed Clara as a young girl on the cusp of womanhood and beefed up the roles of the Nutcracker Prince (which he danced) and Drosselmeyer. It was adapted for television in 1977, with Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland in the lead roles.
- White Nights (1985) For this feature film, Baryshnikov, as a Russian dancer/expat, acted and danced alongside tap star Gregory Hines. In one of the most famous scenes of the film—and Baryshnikov’s career—Hines’ character bets Baryshnikov 11 rubles that he can’t perform an 11-rotation pirouette, to which Baryshnikov responds by executing all 11 turns flawlessly.
- Baryshnikov received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his performance as a Russian dancer and heartthrob in The Turning Point (1977).
- Though arguably one of the most famous dancers ever, Baryshnikov may be better known by the masses for his role as Russian artist Aleksandr Petrovsky in the last season of the hit HBO series “Sex and the City.”