Mikhail Baryshnikov, who planned to retire from the American Ballet Theatre next year, this week unexpectedly broke all ties with the New York dance company. He has demanded that ABT remove his name from all its documents and stationery and has threatened to withdraw two full-length ballets from the ABT repertory.
The dancer-choreographer's moves climaxed an unusual and apparently bitter power struggle within ABT that became public Thursday. Company officials released to The Times the texts of two "Dear Misha" letters outlining an angry dispute over the employment status of Baryshnikov's assistant, his sudden decision to leave at all and even his level of personal commitment to the company during his nine-year reign as its artistic director.
The board was especially critical of Baryshnikov's efforts--or lack of them--to raise money for the company.
"It must not go unmentioned," the ABT board said in one of the letters, "that your reluctance to participate in fund raising on behalf of your own company did not make achieving our goals any easier."
The letter--signed by top ABT board members, including ABT Chairman Melville Straus and President Leo M. Walsh Jr.--chided Baryshnikov for never taking a full salary and insisting on only his well-known $1-a-year token earnings because it contributed to the appearance that he was not fully committed to the company.
"Clearly you felt that a commitment of this nature would have compromised your other pursuits," the board members said.
The board accepted "with regret" Baryshnikov's "decision to leave the Company in the middle of the 50th anniversary season."
In June, Baryshnikov announced he would step down from his ABT post in the summer of 1990. At that time, he said he wanted "to pursue other professional options," which have included a budding stage and film career.
There was no indication at the time of bad feelings between the dancer-choreographer and ABT officials.
Only weeks before his announcement, he persuaded ABT to hire Jane Hermann as executive director. According to one of the letters, he told her then that he would be staying with ABT for at least three years.
But the ABT-Baryshnikov dispute heated up on Monday, when the dancer-choreographer's agent, Edgar Vincent, wrote Hermann demanding that Baryshnikov's name "be removed from all official documents of ABT, i.e. letterheads, programs, brochures etc."
Vincent also disputed the board's claims about Baryshnikov's commitment to the financial health of ABT, insisting that he had "contributed large sums from his own pocket to help out the board" and that he often asked "close personal friends" to contribute as well.
What prompted the letter exchange--and Baryshnikov's decision to leave the company--appears to be the employment status of Assistant Artistic Director Charles France. The letters without citing specifics suggest a number of sticking points--personal and professional--regarding France's employment.
According to Baryshnikov, the company has severed relations with France.
But, according to executive director Hermann, France has taken a year's leave of absence.
France pursued "business on behalf of the company which was inconsistent with the artistic and financial planning which I was attempting to implement. This caused us to work at cross purposes," Hermann said in a letter to Baryshnikov. "When it finally became apparent that the situation with Charles would remain unchanged on every level, he was requested to complete his contract by taking a year's leave of absence with full salary and benefits."
According to ABT spokesman Robert Pontarelli: "The board on Wednesday night agreed to stand by Jane in this matter."
Efforts to reach France and Baryshnikov were unsuccessful Thursday.
Baryshnikov, 41, is dancing Tuesday night with the Martha Graham Dance Company in New York in the world premiere of "American Document." He leaves for Brussels next week for a two-month stay that will include dance appearances in a new work by the American choreographer Mark Morris.
Probably the best known dancer today, Baryshnikov defected to the West in 1974 after a distinguished career with the Soviet Union's famed Kirov Ballet.
A native of Riga, Latvia, he went to Leningrad at the age of 15 and applied for entrance to the Vaganova School, where he studed for three years with the legendary ballet teacher Alexander Pushkin. At 18, he joined the Kirov.
After his defection, he danced with the ABT and the New York City Ballet before taking over the top artistic post at the ABT in 1980.