His dream: to perform in Leningrad again; Baryshnikov sizes up dance in America
New York — Mikhail Baryshnikov, the Kirov Ballet star who defected from Russia in 1974, has a dream: to perform once again in Leningrad.
''It would be my greatest dream!'' he says.
We are chatting in the living room of his apartment on upper Park Avenue. Three years ago, when I interviewed him in this same room, it was a dark, heavily-curtained, formal, wood-paneled room with thick Oriental rugs on the floor and plush upholstery.
Now the same room, casually uncurtained, is awash with spring light. On the wall are hung huge transparent cases containing colorful and exotic Oriental ceremonial costumes. The floors are stained white, and most of the modular furniture is upholstered in white or pastels.
Misha (as his fans and friends call him) is dressed casually too -- he wears a tieless striped shirt, khaki trousers, and white tennis shoes. An injured knee kept him from performing when his American Ballet Theater opened its season recently (they'll perform through June 12). But he had been in good enough shape to dance in his recently aired, previously taped CBS special -- ''Baryshnikov in Hollywood'' -- not long before that.
The last time we spoke, it had been agreed upon his request that his Russian connection not be mentioned. Now there was no such prohibition. As artistic director of the American Ballet Theater, he might just possibly have a chance to make the voyage back to Leningrad, if there should be a new era of Russian-American cultural exchanges.
''Listen,'' he says, and leans forward excitedly, ''Balanchine went back with his own company 40 years after he left. Oh, what a dream!''
Dream as he does about a triumphant return to Russia, Misha considers himself an American now. ''But I still care what happens over there -- after all, it is my own native country.'' Actually, Baryshnikov hails from Riga, Latvia, once an independent country, but a part of the Soviet Union since World War II. His departure from the Kirov Ballet was more a matter of professional problems than politics.
''But America is my country now -- that's why I'm here.''
Does he plan to become a citizen of the United States?
A determined ''Yes! But it will take me a couple of years more.''
He is now artistic director of the American Ballet Theater. Beverly Sills is general manager of the New York City Opera. Is it a growing trend for performers to become executives in the arts?
''It is more unusual in the Opera. In dance choreographers and dancers have always had their own companies -- look at Twyla Tharp and Paul Taylor. . . .''
For some time, Baryshnikov worked under George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet. Has that experience influenced his work with the ABT?
''The New York City Ballet is different than the American Ballet Theater. It is what I learned from him as a human being and as an artist which has affected me most. When I am dealing with certain problems, you can see certain things he programmed in me. I learned how to deal with people, how to work with people.''
Does he consider the American Ballet Theater to be America's national dance company?
''The United States has so many national institutions, it would be wrong to say it is a national ballet even though we travel more than any company in the states. The New York City Ballet and the Martha Graham company are also great national institutions. But the tradition of dance in America is so short. Only about 50 years old. In Europe there is a 200- to 300-year tradition. A lot of people would get upset if I am pretentious about the ABT.''
Who are America's greatest dancers today?''
There are lots of fine dancers on Broadway, the 'gypsies' of the chorus. But in regular dance the best American dancers are Cynthia Gregory, Fernando Bujones , Gelsey Kirkland, Susan Farrell, Merrill Ashley. And there are many good dancers coming from Australia.
''The person who works in movies and can really sing and dance is Liza Minnelli. She is a fantastic singer we all know, but she is also an incredible dancer, too. She keeps in shape and when she sings, half of what she does is dancing.''
Does Baryshnikov see very much of one of the other famous Russian dance defectors, Nureyev?
''Just when we bump into each other. I have heard he is negotiating to take over the Paris Opera Ballet.''
Baryshnikov believes that everybody has the inherent ability to dance. ''All you have to do is relax and push your body in the right direction and not be afraid to be embarrassed. Dance is just a natural extention of the human existence.
''In early religious dancing it was the men who first danced. Before they started to play football, they danced. Have you seen the Lakers when they play basketball - it's an incredible choreography.''
Three familar names are often mentioned by Baryshnikov -- as well as by critics -- in relation to himself: James Cagney, Fred Astaire, Charlie Chaplin. In fact his recent TV special was dedicated to James Cagney. Why?
''They had great influence on me. I saw all of them in Russia. SilentChaplin movies, Astaire dance films, everything that Cagney did. The films were probably war trophies from Germany. What incredible talents all those men had. I probably have been influenced in my movements by them more than I even realize.
''I am now privileged to know Mr. Cagney. We are friends and I am very honored. He inspired me in so many ways. Many people say I move a little like him. (Baryshnikov is often referred to as ''Cagneyesque').
''As a dancer he never had a studied technique like Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. He just had an incredible way of presenting himself -- he mixed classical steps, tap dancing, jete, pirouettes. He was fearless. For Cagney, dance was an extention of his character.''
Will Baryshnikov make more movies besides ''The Turning Point,'' for which he won an Oscar.
''If I do another movie, it will not be to play a dancer. It doesn't make sense. I am dancing on stage. I would like to do something very different. Maybe Chekhov.'' Baryshnikov reveals that he and Cagney have discussed the possibility of a movie about Cagney's life, with Misha playing Cagney. ''But I will have to get rid of more of my Russian accent first,'' he smiles. ''And that is very difficult to do.''
How about some remakes of the old Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films with Misha and Liza Minnelli?
He throws up his hands in amazement. ''That's a very original idea,'' he says , '' a very dangerous idea.''What does Mikhail Baryshnikov see in his own future?
''Well, I have signed for two more years with the American Ballet Theater. I like the idea of traveling less. It would be nice to discover a fine new choreographer who would create wonderful dances for the ABT, some of which I could dance.
''But, you know, I've changed a lot in the last few years. When you get into the middle 30s, you start looking ahead more and you realize there are different horizons. I find myself more at peace with myself somehow, less caught up in professional ambition.''