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Mikhail Baryshnikov - More Resources

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Mikhail Baryshnikov (1948- )

By Stephanie Thibeault

Mikhail Baryshnikov is truly one of America’s great dance treasures. While he is arguably the most famous ballet dancer of all time, to define him merely as such is to ignore the rest of his vast and varied career, including his lifelong contribution to dance and the broader art world.

Born Mikhail Nikolaevitch Baryshnikov in Riga, Latvia, on January 27, 1948, he took his first ballet class at age 9, and at age 16 was accepted into the Vaganova school in Leningrad, where he trained under Alexander Pushkin (1907-1970), who descended from the tradition of Marius Petipa. In 1967, Baryshnikov debuted with the Kirov Ballet (a.k.a. Mariinsky Ballet), where, despite his small stature, his virtuosic technique and superb artistry earned him the opportunity to dance many leading roles in the company’s classical repertoire. In the summer of 1969, he won a gold medal at the first International Ballet Competition in Moscow, helping him become the irrefutable star of the Kirov.  In late 1973, he was named Honored Artist of the Republic, but it was not fame and recognition that he wanted.  He wanted freedom:  freedom to grow, freedom to experiment, freedom to work with innovative choreographers.  He knew he would never have the chance if he remained in the artistically stagnant Kirov Ballet.

Baryshnikov burst onto the American dance scene in the summer of 1974, following his dramatic defection while on tour in Canada.  The story of his flight from the Soviet Union captured headlines and attention, fueling a ballet craze among the American public.  Soon, the name Baryshnikov (or Misha, as he is known to his friends and fans) was well known and signified the superstar of the ballet world.  After arriving in the U.S., he danced primarily with American Ballet Theatre. His best-known ballet partners were fellow émigré Natalia Makarova (1940- ) and Gelsey Kirkland (1952- ), who left New York City Ballet to dance with him.  Choreographers as diverse as Alvin Ailey (1931-1989) and Glen Tetley (1926-2007) flocked to the virtuoso dancer, eager to blend styles, test limits, and see their work on his body.  Though John Butler (1918-1993) was the first to create a ballet specifically for Baryshnikov, the best-known work created for Misha is Push Comes to Shove by Twyla Tharp

In 1978, Misha shocked the dance world with his second defection, leaving ABT to join New York City Ballet.  This move enabled him to work closely with George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. In Balanchine’s starless system, Baryshnikov was paid and treated equally with the others in the company, but as usual, his interest was in the work, not his own stardom.  In his short tenure with NYCB, which lasted approximately 15 months, Baryshnikov danced twenty-two roles; many were in Balanchine’s most famous works, and some, such as in The Four Seasons and Opus 19/The Dreamer were created specifically for him by Robbins.  Balanchine never created a work specifically for Misha.

When Lucia Chase stepped down in 1980, Baryshnikov took over the reins as artistic director of American Ballet Theatre.  True to his lifelong desire to encourage new work, he immediately launched a program to promote and develop emerging choreographers. During his tenure at ABT, he transformed the company by merging the best of the old world and the new, casting mid-level soloists and up-and-coming members of the corps de ballet in prominent roles, and raising the level of technique and artistry among the entire company. Ballets by Balanchine and Sir Frederick Ashton (1904-1988) were revived, and new pieces were commissioned from Kenneth Macmillan (1929-1992), Choo San Goh (1948-1987), and many others.  Modern masterworks, such as Airs by Paul Taylor and Duets by Merce Cunningham, were added to the repertory, along with the works of other contemporary choreographers, including Tharp and José Limón.  Long before hybrid dance was the fashion, Baryshnikov was instrumental in fusing ballet with contemporary dance, giving ABT dancers the opportunity to perform the works of David Gordon (1936- ), Crowsnest (Martha Clarke and Robert Barnett of Pilobolus fame, along with Felix Blaska), “punk ballerina” Karole Armitage (1954- ), Czech-born Jiří Kylián (1947- ), and Mark Morris.  Under Baryshnikov’s direction, American Ballet Theatre became a powerful artistic force and the nation’s premiere repository for classical and contemporary dance works.

Departing ABT in 1989, Baryshnikov headed for Belgium to dance with Mark Morris.  The two immediately began to plan their next big venture.  Following an intense summer residency by Morris and Baryshnikov at Howard Gilman’s White Oak Plantation, White Oak Dance Project, with Baryshnikov as artistic director, began touring in the fall of 1990, bringing contemporary dance to new audiences across the country. Over the next ten years, White Oak presented the works of various choreographers in addition to Morris, including Martha Graham , Erick Hawkins, Hanya Holm, Limón, Cunningham, Lar Lubovitch (1943- ), Martha Clarke (1944- ), Meredith Monk, Tere O'Connor (1958- ), Jaochim Schloemer, Kraig Patterson, Kevin O'Day, Dana Reitz (1948- ), and Meg Stuart (1965- ).  In 2000-2001, Baryshnikov used White Oak Dance Project to present PASTForward, a production featuring works, both new and old, by choreographers from Judson Dance Theater, including Deborah Hay (1941- ), David Gordon, Steve Paxton (1939- ), Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs (1940- ), Simone Forti (1935- ), and Yvonne Rainer (1934- ). The birthplace of postmodern dance in the 1960s, Judson Dance Theater represented a significant period of American dance history with which most Americans, even lovers of dance, were completely unfamiliar. Baryshnikov used his star power to educate the world about dance and pave the way for innovations to come. The final tour of White Oak Dance Project in 2002 featured work by modern and postmodern choreographers.  After twelve years of presenting significant and challenging contemporary choreography to American dance audiences, Baryshnikov shifted his energies as he prepared for the next chapter in his life of service to the arts.

From the moment he set foot on U.S. soil, Baryshnikov was an icon in American ballet.  As his fame reached beyond the dance world to infuse American pop culture, his image graced the covers of Time, People Weekly, and Vogue, not to mention his various appearances on the cover of Dance Magazine over the years. His great success as a dance artist has allowed him to explore his many other interests and passions.  After twenty or more years of taking pictures as a hobby, he published a book of his photography, Moment in Time, in 2005 and has subsequently presented his photography in his own exhibitions, such as Dominican Moves, and Merce My Way.  His televised production of The Nutcracker, along with his acting roles in movies such as The Turning Point (1977) and White Nights (1985), helped ensure his longevity as a pop icon.  His Broadway debut in an adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1989) earned him a Tony nomination for Best Actor and a Drama Critics Award.  He has gone on to perform in other stage plays, and, in the role perhaps most recognizable to younger generations, as Aleksandr Petrovsky in the final season of HBO’s television series Sex and the City.  In 2006, at the age of 58, Baryshnikov was selected as one of People magazine’s Sexiest Men Alive, reaffirming his popularity among the American public.

Starting in the mid- to late-1980s, Baryhnikov took part in various business ventures, including Baryshnikov Bodywear and several fragrances, including Misha, Baryshnikov Pour Homme, and Baryshnikov Pour Femme.  He also partnered with his friend Joseph Brodsky in 1986 to co-found Russian Samovar, a trendy restaurant in Manhattan's theater district. Baryshnikov’s celebrity status has created many opportunities for financial success.  It is apparent, though, that Misha has always had a larger vision for himself and his contribution to the arts. Over the years, he has admitted to making appearances and launching performance tours to raise money for the next project.  Always shifting the focus from himself to the work, Baryshnikov has been savvy about using his name and box office draw to support projects that interest him.

Baryshnikov has been recognized for his outstanding contribution to the arts by the Princess Grace Foundation (Prince Rainier III Award, 2005) and Americans for the Arts (National Arts Award - Kitty Carlisle Hart Award, 2005).  Among his numerous other awards and accolades are the Kennedy Center Honors (2000), the National Medal of Arts (2000), the Jerome Robbins Prize for Excellence in Dance Arts (2004), Yale University’s Chubb Fellowship (2003-04), and Honorary Doctorate degrees from several prestigious universities.

After years of planning, fundraising, and construction, Baryshnikov Arts Center opened in 2005, serving as a more permanent center of activities for the Baryshnikov Dance Foundation, which was founded in 1979.  Located in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, the center gives artists a place to develop and present their work.  Early projects included residencies by choreographers Aszure Barton and Benjamin Millepied (1977- ), and BAC has presented the work of numerous contemporary choreographers, including Donna Uchizono, Richard Move, and Tere O’Connor. The focus of BAC is not limited to dance; the center’s Howard Gilman Performance Space and the Jerome Robbins Theater provide space for presentations of dance, music, theater, film screenings, and lectures, while its studios provide artists with rehearsal space.  Baryshnikov Arts Center is the fulfillment of Misha’s lifelong quest for new and exciting developments in the art world.

Since his last performances of classical ballet in the late 1980s, Mikhail Baryshnikov has gone on to create something even greater than his own fame as a dancer.  While he will long remain the most famous ballet dancer of our time, his most important legacy may well lie in the Baryshnikov Arts Center and his ongoing efforts to support and promote innovation in dance and the arts.

Stephanie Thibeault worked as a professional dancer, choreographer, and dance educator in the DC/Baltimore area before serving on the dance faculty at several institutions, including University of Maryland, Dickinson College, and Wichita State University. Originally a ballet dancer, Thibeault went on to work with modern/postmodern choreographers Deborah Hay, Mark Haim, Ken Skrzesz, Ed Tyler, Robert Battle, David Parsons, Joe Goode and Doug Varone, and performed in White Oak’s PastForward project with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Stephanie Thibeault holds her M.F.A. in Dance from University of Maryland and currently serves as Associate Professor of Dance at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.


Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles


Acocella, Joan. Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays. New York: Pantheon Books, 2007.

Aria, Barbara.  Misha!: The Mikhail Baryshnikov Story. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.

Baryshnikov, Mikhail.  Baryshnikov in Black and White.  New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2002.

Baryshnikov, Mikhail.  Foreword to Reinventing Dance in the 1960s, by Sally Banes, ed. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.

Ramsey, Christopher, ed.  Tributes: Celebrating Fifty Years Of New York City Ballet. New York: William Morrow, 1998.

Siegel, Marcia B.  Howling Near Heaven: Twyla Tharp and the Reinvention of Modern Dance.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006.

Smakov, Gennady.  Baryshnikov from Russia to the West.  New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1981.


“Baryshnikov Now Prefers Modern Dance to Ballet” The Associated Press, Nov 29, 1991.

“Bravo, Baryshnikov!” TIME, Aug 12, 1974.

Baryshnikov, Mikhail. “A bold leap for Mikhail.” People, vol. 24, no. 25, Dec 16, 1985.

Baryshnikov, Mikhail. Baryshnikov at Work. New York: Knopf, 1978.

Berman, Janice. “Misha’s musings; Baryshnikov at 45 is an icon still in love with dance.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 2, 1993.

Chin, Gwin. “Now the harvest of a search for new ballet choreographers.” New York Times, January 9, 1983.

Dunning, Jennifer. “Baryshnikov dances to Broadway via television.” New York Times, April 20, 1980.

Dunning, Jennifer. “Baryshnikov hatches grand plan for new arts center.” New York Times,  December 19, 2002.

Fraser, John.  Private View: Inside Baryshnikov’s American Ballet Theatre.  New York: Bantam, 1988.

Glassman, Bruce.  Mikhail Baryshnikov Genius! The Artist and the Process.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett Press, 1990.

Kalstone, David. “Why the Russians dance circles around us.” New York Times, Nov 2, 1975,

Kisselgoff, Anna. “Baryshnikov cites Soviet curb on art.” New York Times, July 23, 1974.

Kisselgoff, Anna. “Baryshnikov quits as head of American Ballet Theater.” New York Times, Sep 29, 1989.

Kisselgoff, Anna. “Baryshnikov reviews the adventures of Baryshnikov.” New York Times, June 21, 1976.

Kisselgoff, Anna. “Baryshnikov to dance here.” New York Times, July 12, 1974.

Kisselgoff, Anna. “Baryshnikov to join City Ballet in July.” New York Times, April 27, 1978.

Kisselgoff, Anna. “Television is tuning in on the dance boom.” New York Times, Dec. 11, 1977.

Mazo, Joseph. “The education of Mikhail Baryshnikov.” New York Times, Dec 28, 1975.

Ostiere, Hilary. “Baryshnikov light and dark.” Dance Magazine, May 1998.

Perron, Wendy. “Misha’s New Passion.” Dance Magazine, Nov 1, 2990.

Rollin, Lucy W. “Baryshnikov Meets Bowie: Androgyny and the Popularity of Ballet.” Studies in Popular Culture 7 (1984): 78-85.

Temin, Christine. “A new Baryshnikov; he eschews spotlight, but hungers to dance.” The Boston Globe, Nov 12, 1989.

Zibart, Eve. “Misha’s big leap back to ABT; “Misha” returns; the return of Baryshnikov in the role of artistic director.” The Washington Post, June 21, 1979.

Zimmer, Elizabeth. “Thoroughly postmodern Misha.” Village Voice, June 5, 2001.

Online Resources

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive, Jacob’s Pillow, Lee, Massachusetts.


This site offers brief glimpses of various artists who have performed at Jacob’s Pillow.

CBC Digital Archives, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Toronto, Canada


This site contains the CBC News report about Mikhail Baryshnikov’s practice session with the Canadian National Ballet in the days immediately following his defection in 1974.

Baryshnikov Arts Center (BAC), New York, New York.


The Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C.


Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 


Interviews Published Online

Baryshnikov, Mikhail. “A Conversation with Mikhail Baryshnikov” Interview with

Charlie Rose.  Charlie Rose. Mar 2, 2007.


Baryshnikov, Mikhail. “A Conversation with Mikhail Baryshnikov” Interview with

Charlie Rose.  Charlie Rose. Apr 15, 2008.


Moving Image

Baryshnikov Live at Wolf Trap. DVD. Directed by Stan Lathan. 1976; West Long Branch, NJ: Kultur, 2004.

Baryshnikov Dances Sinatra and More, DVD. Directed by Don Mischer. 1984; West Long Branch, NJ: Kultur, 2004.

Baryshnikov: The Dancer and the Dance. VHS. Directed by Tony Cash. 1983; West Long Branch, NJ: Kultur, 1991.

Don Quixote. VHS. Directed by Brian Large. 1983; West Long Branch, NJ: Kultur, 1999.

That’s Dancing! DVD. Directed by Jack Haley, Jr.. 1985; Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2007.

The Nutcracker. DVD. Directed by Tony Charmoli. 1977; West Long Branch, NJ: Kultur, 2004.

The Turning Point. VHS. Directed by Herbert Ross. 1977; Beverly Hills, CA: Twentieth Century Fox, 1993.

White Nights. VHS. Directed by Taylor Hackford. 1985; Burbank, CA: Columbia Tristar Home Video, 1986.

World’s Young Ballet. Directed by Arkadi Tsineman. 1969; West Long Branch, NJ: Kultur, 2007.


The archives of Mikhail Baryshnikov were acquired by the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library in 2011. Contact the Division to inquire about the status of processing and accessibility.