Biography of Mikhail Baryshnikov, Pop Culture's Favorite Ballet Dancer

Mikhail Baryshnikov rehearsing in New York City in 1993
Mikhail Baryshnikov rehearsing in New York City in 1993.

Jack Mitchell / Getty Images

Mikhail Nikolaevich Baryshnikov (born January 27, 1948) is a Russian-American ballet dancer, choreographer, and actor. After defecting from the Soviet Union as a young man, he became world-renowned as one of the greatest male dancers of all time.

Early Life

Baryshnikov was born in Riga, Latvia, in 1948. At the time, Latvia was known as the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic and was part of the Soviet Union. His parents were Russians: Nikolai and Alexandra Baryshnikov, an engineer and a seamstress, respectively. The couple did not have other children, and Alexandra died when Mikhail was young.

At the age of eleven or twelve, Baryshnikov began his ballet training in Riga through the city’s opera-affiliated ballet school. Four years later, in 1964, the teenaged Baryshnikov gained acceptance into the prestigious Vaganova School in St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad). While at the school, which functioned as a training ground for dancers for the Kirov Ballet, Baryshnikov studied with Alexander Pushkin, a famous ballet master.

Baryshnikov soon excelled beyond expectations. He won the junior division of Varna International Ballet competition, and in 1967, he joined the Kirov Ballet. Remarkably, he was permitted to do so as a soloist, skipping over the traditional apprenticeship in which young dancers perform in the corps de ballet (the “chorus,” so to speak). He debuted dancing the “peasant” pas de deux in Giselle, and soon choreographers were lining up to choreograph for him. His signature role came along in 1969 in Leonid Jakobson’s Vestris.

Soviet Defector and Ballet Star

Audiences in the Soviet Union adored Baryshnikov, but the government’s severe restrictions on artistic work – which included a ban on performing modern ballets by non-Soviet creators – frustrated him. During a tour in London in 1970, Baryshnikov began planning with an American friend, Christina Berlin, who was the daughter of Hearst Corporation CEO Richard Berlin. The pair also shared a brief romance.

The Kirov Ballet was touring in Canada in 1974, which proved to be the perfect opportunity. On June 29, Baryshnikov officially defected. He was granted asylum in Toronto and briefly joined a Canadian ballet company, making his first televised appearance since his defection with the National Ballet of Canada. From there, he moved to the United States.

Baryshnikov joined the American Ballet Theatre, and his first ballet with them, fittingly enough, was Giselle. He spent the next four years, from 1974 to 1978, with the company as a principal dancer, partnering with Natalia Makarova and Gelsey Kirkland. During his time with the company, he gained notice for his physical strength and remarkable ability to execute high, graceful leaps. He also began doing choreography work for the company, reworking classics such as The Nutcracker and Don Quixote.

From 1978 to 1979, Baryshnikov was a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. During this era of his career, he worked closely with a pair of legendary choreographers: Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine. By late 1979, however, some health issues were beginning to catch up with him; he even had heart surgery that year. In 1980, he transitioned into an offstage role, returning to the American Ballet Theatre as its artistic director, where he was able to give fuller scope to his longtime fascination with innovation in dance.

Fame in America

Baryshnikov dated actress Jessica Lange for some time, and the pair had a daughter, Alexandra Baryshnikova, in 1981. After his relationship with Lange ended, he met American dancer Lisa Rhinehart. They had three children together – two daughters and one son – and after around two decades together, they finally married in 2006. In 1986, Baryshnikov became a naturalized American citizen.

After stepping away from performing full-time, Baryshnikov dedicated himself to creating new opportunities in dance and expanding his horizons. Starting in 1990, he was the artistic director of the White Oak Dance Project, which focused on creating work for older dancers. He founded the Baryshnikov Arts Center in 2005 in New York, which included dance as part of a multidisciplinary arts center. Although his primary focus had shifted away from onstage roles, he nevertheless still performed on occasion, embracing that wide variety of styles, from jazz to classical ballet, that had so enthralled him from his earliest days as a dancer.

Outside of the dance world, Baryshnikov also began to explore other artistic outlets. As early as 1977, he had taken on acting roles; in fact, his first film role, as a Russian ballet dancer in The Turning Point, earned him an Oscar nomination. Many of his film roles followed this type, specifically roles that could utilize his dancing skills.

On television, Baryshnikov has most often appeared as himself. He and his companies have been featured on a wide array of arts programming, including specials on network television and several appearances on PBS broadcasts of the Kennedy Center Honors and the Great Performances series. In one instance, however, he gained a fan base for a fictional character: Aleksandr Petrovsky, Carrie Bradshaw’s Russian love interest on the final season of Sex and the City.

Ongoing Legacy

Baryshnikov’s talent and accomplishments have earned him a laundry list of awards and recognitions. Among them are Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, a Kennedy Center Honor in 2000, and a Jerome Robbins Prize in 2004. He has continued to work and perform, both as an actor and, occasionally, as a dancer.

In popular culture, Baryshnikov is one of the defining dancers of the modern age. His visibility, combined with his compelling personal narrative and unusual talent, has allowed him this particular place. In the dance world, he is equally renowned, particularly for his passion for innovation in dance.

His innovation is both artistically and practically motivated. Even early in his career, Baryshnikov chafed at the Soviet refusal to explore any innovations or creativity that came from the West. From a purely practical perspective, however, it made a lot of sense for Baryshnikov to embrace non-traditional choreography and styles: as a relatively short man, he would appear shorter than a ballerina dancing en pointe and thus would not be chosen for leading roles. Breaking out of classical structures not only benefitted Baryshnikov himself, but opened up new avenues for a wider array of dancers in the future.

Mikhail Baryshnikov Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Mikhail Nikolaevich Baryshnikov
  • Occupation: Dancer, choreographer, and actor
  • Born: January 27, 1948 in Riga, Latvia
  • Key Accomplishments: After defecting from the Soviet Union, Baryshnikov became one of the most popular and accomplished dancers in history. He has helped pioneer new styles in dance and crossed over into mainstream pop culture from a more niche art form, to the benefit of both.
  • Quote: "It doesn't matter how high you lift your leg. The technique is about transparency, simplicity and making an earnest attempt."

Sources

  • Baryshnikov, Mikhail. Baryshnikov at Work. Knopf: 1978.
  • “Mikhail Baryshnikov.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mikhail-Baryshnikov.
  • “Mikhail Baryshnikov Biography.” The Kennedy Center, http://www.kennedy-center.org/Artist/A3693.