Martha Graham used to say that a dancer’s body does not lie. And indeed this is so, particularly as a dancer ages. In fact, aging as a dancer usually means the end of your dancing career. After all, the body is the instrument of dance. The body as it develops and grows up, as it is molded by hours and years of ballet barre that shape and lengthen muscles, teaching bones to turn in their sockets, and stretching backs and arms into graceful curves. Not to mention center work which trains heads to snap with each turn and bodies to leap through the air and land as gently as rose petals falling on the floor.
Dance is all about the body. As the most physical of the arts, dance is embodied and reliant on physicality to transmit emotions and feelings through movement. It is the body of the dancer and the movement it creates that conveys his or her soul and the messages within it. The impact that age has on our bodies and our physicality often means that dancers retire in their forties, or perhaps earlier, if they are unfortunate enough to become injured. Due to its reliance on the body, dance, unlike any other profession, makes for a short career, no matter how brilliant. There are but a few exceptions to this rule, and Mikael Baryshnikov is perhaps the most notable one.
At 66, he continues to transform himself into multiple permutations of his artistic self while continuing to dance. He embodies the creative transformation of age for all, dancers and non-dancers alike.
Mikael Baryshnikov was born in Riga, Latvia in 1948. He debuted at the Kirov Ballet in 1968, and defected to Canada after a Kirov performance in 1974. Since that time, he has astonished the dance world with his flawless technique, soaring leaps, romantic partnering and soulful movement. Baryshnikov has extended his artistic sensibility beyond the world of dance, crossing over to the world of film (Turning Point, White Nights), theater (Metamorphosis, The Old Woman, and Beckett Shorts), television (Sex and the City), literature (he authored the children’s book Because), and professional photography. Art for Baryshnikov is not just a way of life, it is part of the fabric of his very existence, and as such, it has helped him defy age with creative transformations and leaps.
Baryshnikov is a consummate performer, but he is much more. After being artistic director at the American Ballet for 12 years he founded the With Oak project with Mark Morris in 1989, ushering in a long-time collaboration with modern dance. Later, in 2005, with personal earnings and an initial gift of one million dollars, he opened the Baryshnikov Arts Center. The center offers dance performances, films, chamber music programs, artistic residencies, seminars and theater. It houses a dream-like space for artists who need space and time to work and is Mikael Baryshnikov’s way of giving back to art. In the meantime, he continues to be a dancer, published photographer, actor, writer, and restauranteur, as well as a family man. He remains incredibly modest about his achievements, and admits that he is restless and always looking for something else to work on. Of his accomplishments and transformations he says, “I have the lives of seven cats.”
While he jokes about being an “old man,” his current work and performances provide portraits of a mature artist who retains an elegance of movement and technical clarity that evokes deep emotional resonance. He long ago moved on from his virtuosic ballet career into the world of modern dance, which provides him with material he considers more apt for adult dancers. Yet, on his body, any material seems to come to life. He refuses to dance anything that his body cannot do, and in this sense, he both respects the maturity and age he has achieved while continuing to push himself to what he calls “the edge.” In the world of dance, it is usually only choreographers who continue to dance what they want, yet Baryshnikov has managed to go on working because he is not only a dancer, he is an artist in search of fellow collaborators to deliver a vision of what has been, what is, and what can be. This need for collaboration and expression has led Baryshnikov to work with many choreographers, old and new, classical and modern. One of my personal favorites is a solo created by Benjamin Millepied, called “Years Later,” a quiet mediation on aging choreographed for Baryshnikov, where he dances playfully with a video of his younger self. That dialogue between his younger self and his current self is something that Baryshnikov uses for both inspiration and push, as he continues to dance and perform with young and older dancers. His performances are now more theatrical than physical and based on what he says is impossible: to fake exuberance or technique as an older dancer –“less is more” after a certain age. Perhaps, but watching him perform, we forget his age and simply move with him.
His most recent work with the choreographer Mats Ek eulogizes age and what it looks like on the body, while relying on the experience that dancers have accumulated and the power of its expression.
Baryshnikov continues to take dance class at 66. It is the mainstay and constitutional of all serious dancers: ballet barre, center work, and rehearsal – everyday, no matter what. Such is the language of the body that dances, regardless of age. Performances bring on added classes and rehearsal time, and with experience, a dancer knows how to warm up and what not to do. In the end, dance teaches us that there is an ongoing dialogue with our bodies that must be trusted and listened to; age deepens that rapport and elevates its significance. Mikael Baryshnikov embodies that knowledge and pirouettes on the edge of it, defying ageism at every turn.
“Because not that many years are left. Might as well have fun.” – Mikael Baryshnikov