Mikhail Baryshnikov on Leaving Everything Behind

On the night of June 29, 1974, after a performance with a touring Bolshoi Ballet troupe in downtown Toronto, Mikhail Baryshnikov made his way out a stage door, past a throng of fans and began to run.

Baryshnikov, then 26 and already one of ballet’s brightest stars, had made the momentous decision to defect from the Soviet Union and build a career in the West. On that rainy night, he had to evade K.G.B. agents — and audience members seeking autographs — as he rushed to meet a group of Canadian and American friends waiting in a car a few blocks away.

“That car took me to the free world,” Baryshnikov, 76, recalled in a recent interview. “It was the start of a new life.”

His cloak-and-dagger escape helped to make him a cultural celebrity. “Soviet Dancer in Canada Defects on Bolshoi Tour,” The New York Times declared on its front page.

But the focus on his decision to leave the Soviet Union has sometimes made Baryshnikov uneasy. He said he does not like how the term “defector” sounds in English, conjuring an image of a traitor who has committed high treason.

“I’m not a defector — I’m a selector,” he said. “That was my choice. I selected this life.”

Baryshnikov was born in Soviet-occupied Riga, Latvia, and moved to Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, in 1964, when he was 16, to study with the renowned teacher Alexander Pushkin. When he was 19, he joined the Kirov Ballet, now known as the Mariinsky, and quickly became a star on the Russian ballet scene.

After his defection, he moved to New York and joined American Ballet Theater (which he later ran as artistic director) and then New York City Ballet. The pre-eminent male dancer of the 1970s and ’80s, his star power helped elevate ballet in popular culture. He has worked as an actor, appearing onstage and in several films, including “The Turning Point,” as well as the television series “Sex and the City.” And in 2005, he founded the Baryshnikov Arts Center in Manhattan, which presents dance, music and other programming.

In recent years, Baryshnikov, who has American and Latvian citizenship, has become more vocal about politics. He has criticized former President Donald J. Trump, likening him to the “dangerous totalitarian opportunists” of his youth. He has also spoken out against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, accusing Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, of creating a “world of fear.” He is a founder of True Russia, a foundation to support Ukrainian refugees.

In an interview, Baryshnikov reflected on the 50th anniversary of his defection; the father he left behind in the Soviet Union (his mother died when he was 12); the pain he feels over the Ukrainian war; and the challenges facing Russian artists today. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What memories do you have of that June day in Toronto?

I remember feeling a sense of comfort and security after seeing some very friendly faces in the getaway car. But I also felt fear that it might turn out another way — that at any second, it could fall apart and become like a bad police movie. I was beginning a new life, something totally unknown, and it was my decision and my responsibility. It was time for me to grow up.

You have described your defection as artistic, not political, saying you wanted more creative freedom and the chance to more frequently work abroad, which the Soviet authorities would not permit.

Of course it was a political decision, from a distance. But I really wanted to be an artist and my main concern was my dance. I was 26. That’s middle age for a classical dancer. I wanted to learn from Western choreographers. Time was running out.

Back then you said: “What I have done is called a crime in Russia. But my life is my art, and I realized it would be a greater crime to destroy that.”

Did I say it that eloquently? I don’t believe it. Maybe somebody corrected it with the proper grammar. But I still agree with that. I realized early on that I’m a capable dancer — that’s what I could do, and that’s about it.

You worried that your defection might endanger your father, who was a military officer in Riga and taught military topography at the air force academy.

I knew the K.G.B. services would be interviewing him and asking him if he was involved, and if he would write me a letter or something. He did nothing. I must say, “Thank you, Papa. Thank you for not bending over.” He refused to send me a letter, asking me to please come back.

Did you ever communicate with him again?

I sent him two or three letters saying, “Don’t worry about me, I’m fine, I hope everybody’s healthy at home.” He never responded. And then he passed away quite soon after, in 1980.

You began studying dance at 7, and enrolled at the Riga School of Choreography, the state ballet academy, a few years later. What did your parents think of your dancing?

They were amused that at 10 or 11 years old I belonged to some kind of professional school. But my father always said, “You’ll have to go to a real school and study arithmetic and literature, and get good marks.” I was a really bad student. He said, “If you won’t succeed in a real school, I’ll send you to military school, like Suvorov, and they will straighten you up.” He was bluffing of course. I was already deeply, deeply, deeply in love with theater. I was in love with the atmosphere — the idea that I belonged to this big beautiful circus.

Did you feel you had to forge a new identity when you came to the West?

I felt an enormous sense of freedom. When you don’t have authority over you, you start to have crazy ideas about yourself: “Oh, I’m like Tarzan in the jungle now.” But it was enough. I told myself: “You have to be a grown-up man already. You have to do something serious.” I knew I could dance and I already had some repertoire in my luggage.

Are you still dancing?

Dancing is maybe a loud word, but theater directors sometimes ask, “Are you comfortable if I ask you to move?” I say absolutely. I welcome that. But I don’t miss being onstage in a dancer’s costume.

You have avoided politics for much of your career, but you’ve recently weighed in on a variety of issues, including the war in Ukraine. Why speak up now?

Ukraine is a different story. Ukraine is our friend. I danced Ukrainian dances, listened to Ukrainian music and singers. I know Ukrainian ballets like “The Forest Song,” and I have performed in Kyiv. I am a pacifist and an antifascist, that is for sure. And that’s why I’m on this side of the war.

You were born eight years after Latvia was forcibly annexed to the Soviet Union; your father was one of the Russian workers sent there to teach. How does your experience growing up there affect how you see this war?

I spent the first 16 years of my life in Soviet Latvia, and I know the other side of the coin. I was the son of an occupier. I knew that experience of living under the occupation. The Russians treated it like their territory and their land, and they said the Latvian language is garbage.

I don’t want Putin and his army to enter Riga. Finally Latvia has real independence, and they’re doing pretty good. My mother is buried there. I feel when I’m coming to Riga, I’m coming back to my home.

You wrote an open letter to Putin in 2022, saying he had created a “world of fear.”

He’s a true imperialist with a totally bizarre sense of power. Yes, he speaks with the tongue of my mother, the same way she spoke. But he does not represent the true Russia.

How have you changed since leaving the Soviet Union 50 years ago?

I am a very lucky person. I don’t really know. I want to compose a nice kind of sentence. But it’s not exactly the time for nice sentences, when a person like Aleksei Navalny was sent to prison and destroyed for his honest life.

Would you ever go back to Russia?

No, I don’t think so.

Why not?

The idea never even comes to my mind. I have no answer for you.

I imagine you sometimes think or dream about your time there.

Of course. Occasionally I speak Russian, and quite often I read Russian literature. This is the language of my mother. She was a really simple woman from Kstovo, near the Volga River. I learned my first Russian words from her. I remember her voice, the specific Volga region kind of music. Her sounds. Her “o.” Her vowels.

Some Russian artists, like the Bolshoi Ballet star Olga Smirnova, who is now at the Dutch National Ballet, have left Russia because of the war.

I saw her dance in New York and met her after the show. She’s a wonderful dancer, a lovely woman, and very, very, very brave. It’s a big change to go to the Netherlands after being a principal soloist at the Bolshoi. And yet she was in great shape and showed great pride to perform with a company that adopted her. I am rooting for her.

Are you surprised to see artists once again leaving Russia because of concerns about politics and repression?

There is a word in Russian that refers to refugees and people who run: bezhentsy. This applies to people who are running from the bullets, from the bombs, in this war. There are some Russians — dancers and maybe athletes — who run more gracefully than others. In my very small way, I am trying to support them. In the end, we all run from somebody.

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