I knew that the plan was to tour the gallery and meet up with master ballet dancer, choreographer and actor Mikhail Baryshnikov. Little else would have gotten me up so early, and with so much energy, before 10 a.m. on a Friday morning. But there was no grand entrance, no applause, no introductory speech – nothing you would expect from a legendary dancer. He came in casually and stood with his hands in his pockets, talking to his assistant and to the curator, looking much shorter than you might think a man of so many leaps and turns would appear. When it was time for him to talk to us, he came over and shook everyone’s hand as they introduced themselves.
“Ryan – tap dancer,” I told him.
“Ah, tap dancer!” he said.
I had a feeling he already liked me.
"Take full advantage of your youth and energy. That's the best time to learn." - Baryshnikov
I had been forewarned that Baryshnikov (or “Misha,” as he’s often referred to) was not much of a Chatty Cathy, and the only way our two hours with him would be successful was if we carried the conversation ourselves and asked lots of questions. Luckily for us, he was very loquacious that day, talking at length about the value of making art, and encouraging young people to make art; about some of the highlights of his career; about Baryshnikov Arts Center in NYC.
He led us upstairs and gave us a tour of his new photography exhibit, “Dance This Way,” which features photos that he has taken over the past five years of – what else? – dance. Although many of the pictures capture moments and motion during rehearsals and performances of various companies, the exhibit also depicts dance in other ways: an older couple locked in a passionate ballroom embrace; a profusion of hula girls and skirts, as seen from behind; a young couple on the dance floor at a club.
Misha showed us each photo one by one, telling us where it was taken, what he liked about it, and what had inspired him to take it. Often, he simply said that he was “lucky” to have gotten the shot. Certainly, as so many of the images capture dancers in action, he does seem to have been fortunate to photograph them at just the right moment when the lines and colors bled together to suggest not a sweet second of movement, but an entire feeling, a connection between dancers or between dancer and audience.
"Never forget your instincts. Be persistent with them. Be stubborn. You have to be your best and worst critic.” - Baryshnikov
I was tentative to approach him afterward for a photograph, seeing how he was preparing for an interview and not wanting to bother him. He more than graciously accepted, even getting on tiptoe for one photo and laughing while he tried to look as tall as me. (I told you, I swear he liked me.) Perhaps even better than meeting him and getting the photo was seeing him the next day before a YoungArts performance, in the lobby of the New World Center, and him nodding and smiling at me in remembrance. I went up and shook his hand as if we were old friends. Or perhaps it was the beginning of a new friendship.
"Arts education is the most important thing in the world because art makes people more human."
**To see some of Baryshnikov's paintings, and read more about the exhibit and the Nader Gallery, visit the gallery website.