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To Mikhail Baryshnikov, time is a great teacher

The dancer, now in his 60s, performs with experience won from the decades. He'll bring it to Santa Monica this week.

August 30, 2009|Barbara Isenberg

NEW YORK — It is early afternoon at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. On the fourth floor, a woman in a black leotard dances in a large studio with high ceilings and great views of the Hudson River. She hardly pauses as the most famous dancer of them all stops at the door, looks pleased and moves on.

Mikhail Baryshnikov is proprietor, mentor and role model to the many choreographers and dancers, musicians and actors coming to the 4-year-old center to create, rehearse or perform new work. Baryshnikov himself does his warm-ups and rehearsing in a studio upstairs. Just back from holiday after a dance tour of seven European countries, he works at the ballet barre every day and looks terrific.

At 61, he defies age as he once defied gravity. He may be a grandfather and graying, but the fabled Russian dancer has the stride and carriage of a young man. He is small for a dancer, just 5-foot-7, but muscular and fit in his T-shirt and slacks. As he chats in a small conference room, his familiar face is expressive, his smile easy, and his conversation alternately lively and intense.

It appears to be a good time for Baryshnikov. A new theater downstairs is nearly done, the youngest of his four children is now a teenager, and his performing career is both ample and varied. He starred in "Beckett Shorts" at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2007, after he'd inhabited the rich and romantic Russian artist Aleksandr Petrovsky, who wooed and briefly won Carrie Bradshaw in the last season of HBO's "Sex and the City." Earlier this year, he published a new book of photography, "Merce My Way." As he says in his lightly accented, idiosyncratic English: "I have the life of seven cats."

Apparently so. Baryshnikov and Spanish-born dancer Ana Laguna launch the second season of Santa Monica College's Broad Stage next weekend as the first stop in a U.S. tour that should bring new respect to middle-age dance performance. Broad Artistic Director Dale Franzen, herself a baby boomer, says she is "moved and excited about the idea of seeing these two older dancers dancing a program like this, which is sexy, romantic, intense and envelope-pushing. I think something different and very deep comes to the table."

Billed as three solos and a duet, the pieces share what Baryshnikov calls "a European touch." His world-class choreographers are Laguna's husband, Swedish choreographer Mats Ek; French-born New York City Ballet principal dancer Benjamin Millepied; and former Bolshoi Artistic Director Alexei Ratmansky, now the artist in residence at American Ballet Theatre. The pieces are all "very personal," says Baryshnikov. "These choreographers tend to carve their pieces from inside out. This is definitely not mainstream American dance."

These dances are also more theatrical than physical. "They all know that I'm a man in my early 60s," he says. "Martha Graham used to say that a dancer's body cannot lie. I agree with her in all respects, but I would add especially when it is the body of an older man: You cannot fake it in exuberance or technically. You are who you are. In a way, less is more; that cliche suddenly becomes relevant."

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Truly inspirational

Laguna, 54, a longtime star of Sweden's Cullberg Ballet, recalls seeing Baryshnikov dance with the Kirov when the Russian company came to Spain many years ago. "It is very inspiring to work with him and to see him dancing in the other pieces," she says. "Often one gets to an age where physical capacity is reduced, but it can also open up other possibilities you couldn't have thought of before."

Choreographer Ek, 64, agrees. "Older dancers are diminished by injuries, by aging, by concerns about what the dancing has done to their bodies. But they have a richer backpack to grab from after dancing and living so many years. Even if they don't have the capacity to spin and jump like before, they still have the feeling for dynamics and coordination. It is like swimming and biking -- once you learn it, you won't lose that knowledge."

Laguna, Ek and Baryshnikov had known one another socially for years, and all three say they had hoped to work together one day. But, confides Baryshnikov, once he agreed to the duet with Laguna, he was a little worried. "Mats' pieces are extremely physical and extremely challenging technically. At my age, I thought, 'Oy, what am I getting myself into?' But it is the opportunity of a lifetime for any dancer to work with a choreographer of the stature of Mats."

Millepied, 32, recalls how he first met Baryshnikov when the younger dancer was still in ballet school. "He was an inspiration to any kid growing up wanting to become a ballet dancer," says Millepied. "He not only had this phenomenal technique, but he also had the brains and hard-core discipline. He had the body and face and the whole package -- everything all at once."

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