How well does Mikhail Baryshnikov dance? The question answers itself, given that the very word "Baryshnikov" has come to signify the mastery of that art, and especially of male roles in ballet. Yet there was once a time when no young dancer aspired to become the next Baryshnikov, because even Baryshnikov hadn't yet become Baryshnikov. Born in Latvia to a dressmaker mother and an engineer father, he began studying ballet in 1960, at age eleven. Four years later, he entered the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet, from which he went on to win the venerable Varna International Ballet Competition and, in 1967, join the Kirov Ballet and Marinsky Theater.
The clip at the top of the post shows Baryshnikov's performance at the 1969 Moscow International Ballet Competition, from which he came out, alongside other such soon-to-be big ballet names as Nina Sorokina and Malika Sabirova, as a gold laureate.
"Baryshnikov's technique is faultless, his interpretation magnificent," says the announcer as the still tender-aged dancer, just twenty years old, executes a solo from La Bayadère. The praise would, from that point on, keep on coming, and not just from the Soviet Union; around the same time, New York Times critic Clive Barnes called Baryshnikov "the most perfect dancer I have ever seen."
Yet for all his skill, Baryshnikov didn't fit the traditional ballet template: he lacked the height of other famous male dancers, for one, and he also harbored a desire to go beyond the boundaries of 19th-century dance and explore 20th-century dance's possibilities for innovation. His defection from the Soviet Union in 1974 made it possible for him to work with forward-thinking choreographers like Alvin Ailey and Twyla Tharp, and to this day, in his mid-60s, he continues pushing his performative boundaries on the stage and the screen. Whether the 20-year-old dancer we see here could possibly have imagined such a future for himself — a future involving projects like his role on Sex and the City in the 2000s and his much-viewed video with Lil Buck for Rag & Bone last year — only Baryshnikov knows.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.