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Freedom to Dance: The Mikhail Baryshnikov Archive, Part 1
Recently, when friends ask me what collection I am working on and I give my answer — "The Mikhail Baryshnikov Archive" — I've been receiving unexpected reactions. Everyone seems to have a Baryshnikov story. People who I know have never been to the ballet, who couldn't name another dancer if pressed, have something to say. My younger friends were not even born when he took America by storm, and yet they still know. The Nutcracker. Turning Point. A surprising number of them have seen him dance, due to his continued and prolific touring. I would be lying if I said I was not extremely excited when I found out we were receiving his papers here at the library.
If you have watched Baryshnikov dance, and especially if you have seen examples of his work from throughout his career, the first thing you notice is the energy and excitement he brings to every piece. The second thing you notice is how completely fearless he seems in the face of various dance forms and the work of differing choreographers.
He came to the west for freedom — artistic freedom. The chance to dance with exciting new choreographers, to explore different styles of dance was something not available to the young dancer working with the Kirov Ballet. And when he arrived in the west, he hit the ground running. The Mikhail Baryshnikov Archive holds many images and even correspondence reflecting more than 40 years of artistic collaboration.
Baryshnikov leapt directly into dancing for as many choreographers as possible. After a short stint with the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), he departed to dance with the New York City Ballet, specifically so he could dance under Balanchine. Though Balanchine created no original work for Baryshnikov, he was able to dance 20 roles in the 15 months he spent with New York City Ballet. In 1980, he returned to American Ballet Theatre as artistic director which allowed him further opportunity to explore.
He was given the opportunity to work with modern dance greats, such as Agnes De Mille, who discussed the casting of Rodeo in a letter to Baryshnikov, saying of one dancer "When she played the role a few years ago she offended me very deeply. I don't want ever to see her in the part again."
Baryshnikov brought his creative vision to ABT, performing in works by modern choreographers such as Twyla Tharp. Push Comes to Shove, a modern twist on a classical ballet is an interesting example of work from this time — and was preserved on video for future audiences. Baryshnikov continued to branch out, performing works by modern choreographers such as Paul Taylor as well as making forays into musical theatre dance, working with Ron Field on Baryshnikov on Broadway (1980).
Among the many artists who crossed paths with Baryshnikov during his time with ABT was Mark Morris, who choreographed Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes for the company. The two struck up a friendship which would lead to the development of the White Oak Dance Project, a small group of modern and ballet dancers open to experiencing new works.
Next month, part two of this series will discuss the development of the White Oak Dance Project and the wealth of related materials found in the Jerome Robbins Dance Division's Mikhail Baryshnikov Archive.