Mikhail Baryshnikov

He takes his theater for a spin.

Do you think Alexei is a natural? Born that way?
[In awe] Yes. I think so, I think so. He is amazing. But at the same time, we don't seriously know his beginnings. We don't know his Canada years, his real beginnings in Denmark—definitely, he was always a scholar of dance, when he was even in Moscow in the school, you know? And traveling around the world with [Maya] Plisetskaya and all that. He always had an eye to be a choreographer. But the guy is much more unpredictable than, let's say, Benjamin, because he can just make things from air. And that's different. Benjamin we've known since his tender age, and that's what he danced—Balanchine and Robbins, Robbins and Balanchine. What we see is what we got; Alexei is a bit more of an enigma in terms of, Where does it come from? Plus he's older. He's a family man. Can you imagine six years in Moscow [where Ratmansky was artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet]? [Aghast, he makes the sound of bombs exploding.] Or six, seven years in Copenhagen? Or Canada? He danced in Twyla's pieces, in Mats Ek's pieces, [in John] Cranko's. Name it. He's a guy who really took the Russian school and polished it with the neoclassicism of English or American choreographers, or speed or something. It's a really interesting crossroads. Also I like his musical determination. Some people were on his case that he uses Russian music all the time. He said, "Well, Russian music—I lived for six years in Russia. Until that record will be done, I will do Russian music. What's wrong with that? And after I live for a few years in the United States, I'll do Gershwin or Copland." That's normal. Musical material is like language; it kind of pours into you. [Pauses] He is a little bit—somehow, I don't know why, they're so different, but he reminds me of Mark Morris. It's no wonder Mark really likes his work. I think he saw Russian Seasons and he said, "This is just the most beautiful piece in the last few years." As a choreographer, he was very moved and taken by the craft and everything about it.

They both share a real ease.
The way they work—and the way Mr. B, who I observed in just a couple of things that he was choreographing, used to work—is it's just forward. Everything forward. And Alexei, if he was stuck on something, he would say, "Can you leave me for 20 or 30 minutes? I kind of lost my thought. I know it's there, but I have to be alone" and I would have a coffee and come back and he would come up with one more minute [of choreography].

What is the Ratmansky solo like?
He took the famous piece, Valse-Fantasie, that Balanchine and Fokine did. There is a story behind this music: Glinka, the composer, was in St. Petersburg and was madly in love. The story goes that he was publicly rejected and humiliated; the young woman refused his declaration of love and he left Russia to cure his heartache. A couple of years later he saw this young woman again and didn't have any feelings left for her. Alexei had this idea to do the story, a little bit, of this composer's life, or maybe an actor or a dancer is telling the story—it's not quite clear. I danced it everywhere in Europe and on the West Coast and I danced it once in New York, which was before it was costumed and lit and everything—it was for one quick fund-raising. I feel I owed it to Benjamin and Alexei to dance the solos at least a couple of times in New York. I will do it in Paris in June and in Israel and South America. Last year, I did, like, 50 shows in Europe in eight or nine different countries and everybody says, "Well, you discriminate in New York," but I always say I am always nervous to dance in New York somehow.

I don't know. It's just psychological. I feel like it's always a bit of a political agenda. Maybe it's normal: I started dancing in New York so many years ago and it's sort of like the clock is ticking—it's the last year or two years maybe. I have to make a decision of when I'll stop. It's not just that I am panicking or something. I have plenty of things to do. At the same time, this new piece with Susan Marshall is very unusual. I don't know what to think about it. I never did anything like that in my life. It's a kind of conceptual piece. That's the thing. But New York, yeah. And again, I am doing this because of the theater, really. I come back to the bicycle. I want to take this bicycle around the corner and I am really curious. I want to try it at least once. It's just a curiosity, and it's exciting.

You are so associated with dance, but you're not focusing on just dance at BAC—it's more that you want to build a whole world of art....
I never was. I mean my name is probably associated with it. In Europe, I am Sex and the City. "Oh, you are the guy—what's his name?" [Laughs] Hopefully we'll do some educational programs too. I think this theater could really be used as a tool. We have to find sponsorship to bring first-time directors and lighting designers because they never have really the chance to use a real theater. I think there should be a program overseen by real professionals to allow people to gain experience without any pressure—to use a stage in its full capacity, which does not happen very often. Especially in a theater like this—it is totally equipped electronically. It would be the best kind of a toy. It's not a toy, but it looks like one. To allow young artists to really experiment and see what they could do, what they could learn and how to apply this knowledge to their first steps—it could be a really interesting program.

Do you think you'll be in the position to commission pieces?
But we are, in a way. We have a program now with the Robbins Foundation. They are giving us a grant to identify a few choreographers who we can give an opportunity to work in our space. Just as a stimulus package, because it is really important, and we are working on this. We might coproduce or present some artist if we think she or he is a good chance to use the real theater. It's a big difference to jump from P.S. [122] or the Joyce Soho suddenly to a kind of real theater. It is a small theater, but it is a theater. While we have this opportunity, we are looking around and we are working with people from abroad, too. I think that Russian theater right now is more interesting than Russian ballet. And connection between American and Russian theater has such a dramatic history of the Stanislavski and the connection with Adler and Strasburg. Without them there would be no American theater. Peter Brook spent 45 minutes in our building and he loved both spaces. He said, "That's what I dream about—that kind of space." He wants to put on two of his small plays next year at the Robbins Theater. I was really touched when a guy like that says, "This is a real space; I would really love to put my new work in a place like that."

What was the last great thing you saw?
I saw Uncle Vanya recently by the Maly Theatre [at the Brooklyn Academy of Music]. For me, it was a very impressive performance. Last week, I was in Paris and I saw a performance at the Garnier of the Paris Opera School. They danced in the most beautiful way; my wife and I were sitting and our jaws... [He drops his in illustration.] It was the most delightful performance to see how beautifully it was rehearsed. It was all ages—it was the boys and girls, age 12, 13 to 18. [He removes an imaginary hat.] Chapeau, like French say. We were very moved. I never cry in the theater. There were absolutely tears in my eyes of how beautiful it was. I think [director] lisabeth Platel is doing a great job, but it's a great school. I wish they could really combine both schools, Russian and French. From the waist down, I would give a preference to French, and up [with] a certain port de bras, certain inspirational moments, a little Russian theater would be...but still. It was so beautiful and so mature. It was nice to see, although I rarely go to see ballet. There's not much time left to spend three hours to see another Swan Lake. [Sighs] I saw the new piece by Billy Forsythe; it was very interesting. And he's still working on it. Every performance is different. Paris was happening. It was nice to see.

Are you really going to dance in a film with Kate Moss?
[Whispers] No. Michael [Clark] had this idea, and it might happen. I don't know. He had this idea years ago—he thinks that Kate is a really wonderful performer because he knows her intimately and he said that she can move and has really strong artistic instincts and that's what she does when she models, and I've met her briefly and she is lovely. But it never had any real plans. It's just somebody heard something—

And it spread.
Yes. But you never know—Michael, he appears sometimes: "I have this idea." I would like to still work with him. We had a great time when he did the solo [Rattle Your Jewelry]. I love Michael. I think he is a very serious and troubled man. He can be self-destructive and everything but still he goes forward all the time. For him, success or commercial aspects does not mean anything. He really does work only because he loves doing it. It's really kind of a rare thing. Rare.

What else are you working on?
I'm doing a little project with Billy Forsythe. We started to do something. Just to work on the movement, which is really kind of cool—to dance together. It's like two 60-year-old geeks in the sandbox. He sends me phrases through the Internet and I'm learning some movements and it's just fun. Maybe nothing will come out, but it's nice that somebody calls and says, "I have this idea. Do you want to try?" It's still fun. It's still interesting. [He scratches a spot on his arm.] I sometimes look at myself and say, Well, it's a dead wood. But then in scratching yourself, you say, Oh, there is still some blood. [Laughs] You know how people scratch a tree's bark? "No, it's still alive!" I am bleeding. Shit, man.

I think there's a lot of blood left.
I don't know. For dance, it takes a long time to get the day going because you have to really work. Like I'm doing now, I'm doing something with Merce Cunningham's company and I'm guesting with them for their tour and I'm learning some of Merce's early '70s solos when he was actually younger than me, by quite a few years. We'll do the Event in Los Angeles and maybe elsewhere—I don't know. But I started at 11am with Merce's.... [Pauses] My back was just killing me and there were people three times younger than me in front of me and it was like, What are you doing here? [Laughs] But actually it was really nice. The last time I took Merce's class he was teaching. I was there with the repertory group; the company is stuck in Monaco. I am working with video of Merce in front of me for hours and hours and hours. It's fun, though. They are rarely done, those solos, because he did this at the end of the Events. They are calling this now Occasion Piece 2. Merce did choreograph for both of us. This is a tribute to him.

Sometimes it's hard to believe he died.
[Nods] It's difficult to believe, especially being in those studios at Westbeth. But he is there. There's a big TV with all of those "Mondays with Merce." And his conversation with Mark [Morris]...[Smiles] it feels like, yes, he's not there, but he is there in spirit.

"May Nights in the Jerome Robbins Theater" continues at Baryshnikov Arts Center through May 26.

RELATED Baryshnikov Arts Center heats up "May Nights"


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