Friday, January 11, 2008

Lust for life

On a recent YouTube break, I ran across the wonderful tribute (a clip show) that the Kennedy Center Honors put together when they honored Mikhail Baryshnikov several years ago. Presented and narrated by the late great Greg Hines, it is a really moving piece of propaganda.

Because of course, that is what Baryshnikov and many of his fellow defectors were during the Cold War; proof that the West was better, freer, the true home of Great Art. American dancers resented them and their booming ticket sales, feeling that they were overlooked for the better story.

Bitterness aside or even not aside, Misha really was That Good. I, alas, never got to see him dance live, but luckily his videos are legion (and so are his Sex and the City reruns). I always think that you can tell a truly great dancer because there's that second at the top of their jump when they just seem to hover, if not magically float up a couple of extra inches. This is a little unfair to great dancers who are less great jumpers. Simon Ball at Boston Ballet actually has this quality, to my amateur eye, while Ethan Stiefel, often called the premier male ballet dancer of our time, does not. Regardless, Baryshikov has it all: jumps, footwork, facial expression, and partnering. Yes, although Gelsey Kirkland, his anorexic, plastic surgeried, cocaine-addicted partner of several years, would tell you no.

Reading a bio of his, inventively titled Misha (from St. Martin's Press, the same press that is printing the unauthorized Tom Cruise bio right now), I learned about the many downs of his career as well. It kind of made me cringe, from the crippling physical pain to the business woes to the suicide of Patrick Bissell, once one of his lead dancers. The price of genius is prohibitively high.

Things seem to have settled down for him in years past. Aside from being instantly recognizable as the man who almost got Carrie, he's in a series of Beckett shorts in NYC right now, and his Manhattan arts center recently signed with a resident theatre company. It will be very interesting to see how his career goes in the second half of his life, but he has already staked out his place as the greatest and most influential dancer of one or maybe two generations.

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