Watch a 20-Year-Old Mikhail Baryshnikov Win Gold in One of His Earliest Performances (1969)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bal­let in Super Slow Motion

Bal­let Dancers Do Their Hard­est Moves in Slow Motion

Watch an Avant-Garde Bauhaus Bal­let in Bril­liant Col­or, the Tri­adic Bal­let First Staged by Oskar Schlem­mer in 1922

Google Gives You a 360° View of the Per­form­ing Arts, From the Roy­al Shake­speare Com­pa­ny to the Paris Opera Bal­let

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.

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