New York — There seemed to be cataclysmic obstacles in the path of the interview with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Liza Minnelli to celebrate the TV special "Baryshnikov on Broadway" (Thursday, ABC, 9-10 p.m., check local listings).
Besides a transit strike here, which limited travel on the city streets, there was a heavy rain falling. Baryshnikov, driving his own car, and Miss Minnelli, in a chauffeured limousine, were to rendezvous with the interviewer at a midway point -- the apartment of Miss Minnelli's manager.
I arrived wet -- and early. It was a cozy cooperative apartment complete with fireplace, and I was fully prepared to be told that the superstars simply couldn't make it. But only a few moments later the buzzer announced the arrival of Liza, and almost immediately afterward, Baryshnikov. After rainwear was doffed and cranberry juice provided for the ballet star, what ensued was a breathless, chatty conversation, punctuated by giggles and hugs on the part of the two stars who obviously enjoy each other's company.
Misha, as everybody calls him, was rather formally dressed in fray trim-fitting wide-whale corduroy jacket, gray flannel trousers, a blue and yellow striped shirt, wide dark blue tie, black half-boots. With his neatly trimmed three-months growth of flecked blond beard (a bit darker than his blond hair) it would have been difficult to identify this short (shorter than Liza), compactly built man (who might have been a street urchin dressed up in borrowed finery) as the ballet dancer with the almost perfectly proportioned body seen at the New York City Ballet last year, on TV dancing "Nutcracker," and now at the American Ballet Theater.
Liza's dark, mascara-outlined eyes, black hair, and white skin were perfectly accented by a white dancing work shirt, black velvet pants, and white sneakers. The chiaroscuro was startlingly stark although her sparkling eyes and wide grin constantly softened the effect. Every now and then one caught an infection reminiscent of her mother, the late Judy Garland.
It had been decreed in advance that there was to be no discussion of her personal life (mther Judy, father Vincente Minnelli, who recently remarried, Liza's own recent marriage, etc.). I had interviewed her several years before with the same proviso when she led the conversation into a discussion of her mother, whom she still adores and feels was never fully appreciated for the marvelous person and parent she was. In the case of Baryshnikov, it was agreed that there would be no discussion of his 1974 defection from the Russian Kirov Ballet (it was not political) or of his plans as director of the American Ballet Theater beginning in September. The last time I had interviewed him about his 1975 "Nutcracker," I had had the same forced restriction, and when I asked why, I was told there were family and friends still to worry about. So, what to talk about besides the weather and the strike? The new TV special of course.
"It's nice," says Misha. "I have a casette and I've seen it over and over again, and I like it."
how about movies? Since his debut in "The Turning Point" there have been predictions that Baryshnikov will do more movies.
He smiles and points to his mouth. "Not until I get rid of all this garbage in my mouth." He means his thick Russian accent, less heavy than before, but still a hindrance.
Cagney-esque is a good word to describe Misha off stage. There is a little tough-boy quality about him, especially in the "Guys and Doll" excerpt in the show. Is it accidental?
"When I did this 'Guys and Dolls' number, Mr. Cagney's image was in front of me all the time. I tried to look like him, move like him.
"At home when I was a boy I saw early Cagney movies where he played the tough guy. I also saw Fred Astaire and Chaplin films and the old MGM musicals. I don't remember Cagney dancing, although I think I saw 'Yankee Doodle Dandy.' I just remember his hat and his attitude."
Misha turns the brim down on an imaginary chapeau. "Fred Astaire was born to be a dancer but for Cagney dancing was always secondary, something he just loved to do"
Does Misha object to being compared to Cagney?
"I love to be compared to such a man, so just keep going, keep talking. I love Cagney-esque" he toys with the word. "I met him some time ago and when we were making the show I had dinner with him and he showed me a few tap steps during our rehearsal."
Has Misha met Fred Astaire?
Liza interrupts. "He will -- he will." And it is apparent that she plans to make certain that it will happen soon.
The "Guys and Dolls" ballet number in the TV special was choreographed by Ron Field and Misha is especially pleased with the number. The interviewer suggest that it might be expanded even further for Broadway. Misha smiles slyly. "This ballet can be expanded. I was speaking about it with Ron and I think some day this can really be a one-act ballet for like 45 minutes. I like the style."
Liza asks: "Can I be in it, too?" Misha leans over and pecks her on the cheek. "Of course. . . ."
Mr. Baryshnikov, who has left the New York City Ballet and begins as director of the American Ballet Theater in September has very tentative plans for his own future.
"I would love to do nondancing roles like Cagney one day, but it will take me years more to improve my language. One never knows -- I would live to do straight dramas."
Any more choreography? Mr . Baryshnikov choreographed a new version of "Nutcraker" and "Don Quixote" a few seasons back. "No more choreography. I don't think I have this talent."
Liza asks, "Not even in the style of this Broadway special?"
"No," he shaked his head. "You have to be keyed to Broadway to do this."
How does dancing on Broadway compare with classical ballet dancing? Misha is very definite. "There is no similarity. Even the sense of performance is different. Psychologically and physically you are tuning yourself differently. Your body grows differently. It is impossible to compare."
As definite as that sounds, I later viewed a short promotional interview taped by Baryshnikov, and he was aked the same question. His answer: "It is all the same movement, the same timing. . . . The whole tradition of American musical comedy is universal." Mr. Field interpolated: "You can't really experience the joy of any kind of dancing without the rigid rules of ballet."
Says Mr. Baryshnikov of his tap-dancing effort: "I never heard myself dance before." He smiles like an exuberant little boy who has managed to hit a home run. "I never dreamed in my whole life that I would be part of this kind of show business some day."
Liza: "It's an American tradition that you start in dancing school with the Fred Astaire kind of tap dancing and then you change t ballet."
Baryshnikov: "Nobody else in the world has a form like the native American musical, and Americans should be very proud. Maybe there is the British music hall, the German cabaret, the Viennese operetta, and in Russian there is a comedy theater. But ballet is not Russian in origin although many people think so. It was revived there."
Although it had been agreed not to discuss Mr. B's plans for the American Ballet Theater, he is quite willing to say that he will start a national tour in December. Miss Minnelli is appearing at the Met with the Martha Graham Dance Company in "The Owl and the Pussycat" for two weeks and then plans to return to California for a movie. Does she have any plans for new and different projects?
They laugh together and Misha asks her what else is left for her to do.
"There's nothing left but a nice skating shot" she laughs. Sitting on the sofa, Misha manages to make ice-skating motions with his legs as he laughs.
What does Baryshnikov believe this poptype show will accomplish?
He becomes serious. "I think it will bring more people to classical ballet as well as to Broadway, too. You know," he says quietly, "the real truth is I would be more than happy if it does something for ballet or Broadway, but I wonder if one show, one hour, can do much more than entertain."
Liza translates. "Don't misunderstand Misha. He's so honest, he says exactly what he thinks. He's completely open. When he says 'I don't know' he is not saying 'No,' he just doesn't know, that's one of the nicest things about Misha -- his sincerity and honesty."
How does Misha feel about the statements by Herbert Ross, the director of the film "Nijinsky," that the reason there is so little of Nijinsky-choreographed dancing in the film is because his choreography seems outdated now?
"Nonsense," Misha says, incensed. "The Nijinsky repertoire -- 'Spectre of the Rose,' 'Les Sylphides,' 'Afternoon of a Faun' -- all the major companies in the world are still doing them -- Nureyev, Anthony Dowell. I wouldn't be afraid to show the public the Nijinsky repertoire. Saying such things is not fair to the memory of Nijinsky. His choreography was very advanced." Baryshnikov says he plans to focus most of the time with the ABT on revivals of classical ballets , perhaps some Nijinsky. But no originals. "I will find somebody to choreograph" he smiles sadly.
Mr. Baryshnikov is especially excited about the finale of the special, which reproduces the final number of "A Chorus Line.c How did that come about?
"I love 'chorus Line' and I had met choreographer Michael Bennet before, and when we started to put the show in shape I said it would be funny to have a number in which a classical dancer like me comes to audition, and we asked Michael if we could change a little lyric or something. Michael came to rehearsals and suggested that it could really be the scene from 'Chorus Line,' and we ended up redoing the finale. He was wonderful -- directing it and editing it. it's wonderful on stage but doesn't lose any of the excitement on TV. He managed to bring it up a little perfectly."
Is one hour enough?
"Of course not, we have two hours more. . . . But maybe we can do another one."
Liza: "Oh, Misha, let's do it again. But faster." This special took two years to do, she points out to the interviewer.
"I guess much will depend upon whether or not people tune in to see what this strange combination of performers will do. . . ," she says.
"How is it that a star like Liza Minnelli agreed to second billing on somebody else's show?"
"Special guest star," Misha corrects. Liza is silent for a moment. "Well, honestly, to me it's an honor to appear with Baryshnikov. . . ."
Misha jumps up, pulls Liza from the sofa, hugs, and turns to the interviewer: "Next time, it will be the reverse. . . ."
Over his shoulder, Liza winks at the interviewer: "Keep that tape for the record," she laughs. "It's a commitment."
The apartment intercom buzzer rings from the lobby, and it is Liza's chauffeur asking if she is ready to go. We shake hands, gather our rainwear, and prepare to scatter into New York's rain-soaked, transit-struck, driving, walking, bicycling mobs. . . .