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Mikhail Baryshnikov on leaving everything behind

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On the evening of June 29, 1974, after wrapping up a tour of the Bolshoi Ballet in downtown Toronto, Mikhail Baryshnikov burst out of the stage door, through a crowd of fans, and began to run.

Baryshnikov, then 26 and one of ballet’s biggest stars, had made the fateful decision to break away from the Soviet Union and forge a career in the West. On that rainy night, he had to dodge KGB agents and autograph-seekers to meet a group of Canadian and American friends waiting in their car a few blocks away.

“That car brought me to the free world,” Baryshnikov, 76, recalled in a recent interview. “It was the beginning of a new life.”

His escape made him Cultural Celebrities. “Canadian Soviet Dancer Defects During Bolshoi Theater Tour,” The New York Times Declared On its front page.

But Baryshnikov sometimes felt uneasy about his decision to leave the Soviet Union. He said he didn’t like the way the word “defector” sounded in English, conjuring up images of traitors who had committed treason against their country.

“I’m not a defector — I’m a chooser,” he said. “This is my choice. I choose this life.”

Baryshnikov was born in the Soviet city of Riga (now part of Latvia), and at the age of 16 he moved to Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) in 1964 to study under the famous teacher Alexander PushkinAt 19, he joined the Kirov Ballet (now known as the Mariinsky Ballet) and quickly became a star in the Russian ballet world.

After defecting, he moved to New York and joined the American Ballet Theatre (where he later served as artistic director) and then the New York City Ballet. As a prominent male dancer in the 1970s and 1980s, his star power helped elevate ballet in popular culture. He worked as an actor, appearing on stage and in several films, including “Turning Point” and the TV series “Sex and the CityIn 2005, he founded Baryshnikov Art Center Located in Manhattan, it offers dance, music and other programming.

In recent years, Baryshnikov, who holds both American and Latvian citizenship, has become increasingly politically active. criticize Former President Donald J. Trump likened him to a “dangerous totalitarian opportunist” in his youth. He also spoke out against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, accusing Russian President Vladimir V. Putin of creating “The world of horror“he is The real Russiaa foundation supporting Ukrainian refugees.

In an interview, Baryshnikov recalled the 50th anniversary of his defection; his father who remained in the Soviet Union (his mother died when he was 12); the pain he felt from the war in Ukraine; and the challenges facing artists in Russia today. Edited excerpts follow.

What are your memories of that June day in Toronto?

I remember feeling a sense of comfort and security after seeing a few very friendly faces in the getaway car. But I also feared that things could go another way—that at any moment they could fall apart and turn into a bad cop movie. I was about to start a new life, a completely unknown one, and it was my decision and my responsibility. It was time for me to grow up.

You have describe You defected as an artistic rather than a political person, claiming that you wanted more creative freedom and the opportunity to work abroad more frequently, but the Soviet authorities would not allow it.

Of course, it was a political decision, viewed from a distance. But I really wanted to be an artist, and my main concern was my dance. I was 26 years old. For a classical dancer, this is already middle age. I wanted to learn from Western choreographers. Time was running out.

At that time you say: “What I do is called a crime in Russia. But my life is my art, and I realize that destroying it is a greater crime.”

Did I say that convincingly? I don’t believe it. Maybe someone has corrected it with the right grammar. But I still agree with it. I realized very early on that I was a capable dancer – this is what I can do, and that’s it.

You worry that your defection might endanger your father, an officer in Riga who teaches military topography at the Air Force Academy.

I knew the KGB would interview him and ask him if he was involved, if he would write me a letter or something like that. But he did nothing. I had to say, “Thank you, Dad. Thank you for not giving in.” He refused to write me a letter asking me to come back.

Are you still in touch with him?

I sent him two or three letters saying, “Don’t worry about me, I’m fine, and I hope everyone in the family is healthy.” He never responded. Not long after, he died in 1980.

You started dancing at the age of 7 and a few years later you entered the Riga Choreography School (National Ballet Academy). What do your parents think of your dancing?

They thought it was funny that I went to some kind of vocational school when I was 10 or 11. But my father always said, “You have to go to a real school and learn arithmetic and literature and do well in it.” I was a very bad student. He said, “If you can’t succeed in a real school, I’ll send you to a military school, like Suvorov, and they’ll make you decent.” Of course, he was bluffing. I had fallen deeply in love with theater. I fell in love with the atmosphere – the idea that I belonged to this big, beautiful circus.

Did you feel like you had to forge a new identity when you came to the West?

I felt a huge sense of freedom. When you have no authority, you start to have crazy thoughts about yourself: “Oh, I’m like Tarzan in the jungle now.” But it was enough. I told myself: “You’re an adult now. You have to do something serious.” I knew I could dance and I already had some tracks in my luggage.

Are you still dancing?

The word “dance” might be a stretch, but theater directors sometimes ask, “If I asked you to move, would it be comfortable for you?” I say, of course. I welcome it. But I don’t miss being on stage in a dancer’s costume.

You’ve avoided politics for most of your career, but you’ve recently trade off Various issues, including the war in Ukraine. Why speak out now?

The situation in Ukraine is different. Ukraine is our friend. I danced Ukrainian dances, listened to Ukrainian music and singers. I know Ukrainian ballet, such as “Forest Song“, and I performed in Kiev. I am a pacifist, an anti-fascist, that’s for sure. That’s why I am on the side of the war.

You were born eight years after Latvia was forcibly annexed by the Soviet Union; your father was one of the Russian workers sent there to teach. How did your experience growing up there influence your views on the war?

I spent the first 16 years of my life in Soviet Latvia, and I know the other side of things. I am the son of an occupier. I understand what it is like to live under occupation. The Russians treated it as their territory and their land, and they said Latvian was garbage.

I don’t want Putin and his army to come to Riga. Latvia has finally gained real independence and they are doing well. My mother is buried there. I feel like when I come to Riga, I am back home.

You wrote a Open the envelope In 2022, Trump told Putin that he had created a “world of fear.”

He is a true imperialist with a completely bizarre sense of power. Yes, he speaks with the same accent as my mother. But he does not represent the real Russia.

How have you changed since leaving the Soviet Union 50 years ago?

I am a very lucky person. I really don’t know. I want to write a very good sentence. But now is not the time to write a good sentence, when a person like Alexey Navalny He was jailed and ruined for his honest life.

Will you return to Russia?

No, I don’t think so.

why not?

I haven’t thought about it at all. I can’t answer you.

I sometimes imagine you Thinking or dreaming Tell about your time there.

Of course. I speak Russian occasionally, and I often read Russian literature. It is the language of my mother. She was a simple woman from Kstovo, near the Volga River. I learned my first Russian words from her. I remember her voice, that music that is unique to the Volga region. Her voice. Her “o”. Her vowels.

Some Russian artists, such as the stars of the Bolshoi Ballet Olga SmirnovaTwo ballet dancers currently working for the Dutch National Ballet left Russia because of the war.

I saw her dance in New York and met her after the show. She is a wonderful dancer, a lovely woman, and very, very brave. It was a big transition to go to the Netherlands after being the principal soloist at the Bolshoi. But she is in great shape and is proud to be performing with the company that has taken her in. I support her.

Are you surprised to see artists leaving Russia again because of concerns about politics and oppression?

There is a word in Russian for refugees and people who run away: bezhentsy. It applies to people who are running from bullets, bombs, in this war. Some Russians – dancers, maybe athletes – run more gracefully than others. In my small capacity, I try to support them. Ultimately, we all run from someone.

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