Baryshnikov Becomes Artistic Director of American Ballet Theatre Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Mikhail Baryshnikov’s defection from the Soviet Union in 1974 gave American ballet its second superstar, but his subsequent tenure as artistic director of American Ballet Theatre from 1980 to 1990 proved less than fruitful.

Summary of Event

In 1980, Mikhail Baryshnikov took over as the artistic director of American Ballet Theatre (popularly known as ABT), rival to George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet (NYCB). A supremely brilliant and inspiring technical dancer, Baryshnikov might have molded ABT into the finest ballet company in the world, but his lack of skill as an administrator weakened the company to the point where many thought it would close altogether. American Ballet Theatre Ballet [kw]Baryshnikov Becomes Artistic Director of American Ballet Theatre (Fall, 1980) [kw]Artistic Director of American Ballet Theatre, Baryshnikov Becomes (Fall, 1980) [kw]Director of American Ballet Theatre, Baryshnikov Becomes Artistic (Fall, 1980) [kw]American Ballet Theatre, Baryshnikov Becomes Artistic Director of (Fall, 1980) [kw]Ballet Theatre, Baryshnikov Becomes Artistic Director of American (Fall, 1980) [kw]Theatre, Baryshnikov Becomes Artistic Director of American Ballet (Fall, 1980) Dance;ballet American Ballet Theatre Ballet [g]North America;Fall, 1980: Baryshnikov Becomes Artistic Director of American Ballet Theatre[04280] [g]United States;Fall, 1980: Baryshnikov Becomes Artistic Director of American Ballet Theatre[04280] [c]Dance;Fall, 1980: Baryshnikov Becomes Artistic Director of American Ballet Theatre[04280] Baryshnikov, Mikhail Balanchine, George Kirkland, Gelsey

As a boy, Baryshnikov had been trained at the Riga School of ballet and already was recognized as a “future genius” by the time he danced with his visiting Latvian company in Leningrad in 1964. Three years had passed since Rudolf Nureyev’s defection to the West in Paris, and Leningrad audiences were eager to find a star to fill the void Nureyev had left behind. They were to find him in Mikhail Baryshnikov, then almost sixteen years old.

Leningrad had been the birthplace of Russian ballet and was the home of the Kirov Ballet. Baryshnikov thought he had arrived at the hub of his world. He was accepted quickly into the prestigious Vaganova School, and at the end of his training in 1967 he moved directly into the Kirov Ballet as a soloist. In 1969, he won the gold medal at the First International Ballet Competition in Moscow and the Nijinsky Prize in Paris, and he danced his first leading role as Basil in Don Quixote. His beloved Natalia Makarova had defected to the West the year before, but Baryshnikov, who was on tour with her, contented himself with an unofficial visit to Nureyev’s home and an evening watching the Royal Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. He returned to the Soviet Union.

Creation of the World (1971) made a star of Baryshnikov, and in 1972 he made his debut as Count Albrecht in the great classical ballet Giselle. However, despite Baryshnikov’s success, the tightly controlled world of Russian classical ballet was beginning to chafe. In June, 1974, during a tour with a Bolshoi company in Toronto, Baryshnikov defected, following in the footsteps of Makarova and Nureyev.

Nureyev on his defection specifically had asked to dance with Margot Fonteyn; Baryshnikov informed Gelsey Kirkland of the New York City Ballet that he wanted to dance with her if she would leave Balanchine’s NYCB for American Ballet Theatre. Kirkland had been finding the NYCB unsatisfactory, and she staged her own smaller defection to ABT.

Baryshnikov, now widely known to the world as Misha, debuted in the West as Albrecht to Makarova’s Giselle, winning twenty-four curtain calls and a half-hour standing ovation. It was the challenge of learning other, nonclassical dance styles that fascinated him as he rehearsed Frederick Ashton’s Les Patineurs and Balanchine’s Theme and Variations. His partner Kirkland, trained in the abstract style of Balanchine, was equally intent on learning the classical story-ballet style for her performances with him in Coppelia.

Between them, Baryshnikov and Kirkland represented two styles of ballet that were as different in their way as classical music is from jazz, and each wanted to learn the other’s skills. Just as Baryshnikov’s Kirov and Bolshoi companies had never attempted the more modern abstract style, so Kirkland’s NYCB had eschewed the classical style in favor of abstract, geometrical ballets with no story line.

In many ways and despite the undoubted brilliance of Balanchine this was a false start. From its inception, classical ballet had told stories. Dancers had been actors performing roles that called for dramatic presence in addition to technical skills. Because the stories were told in wordless gesture and mime, only the simplest stories survived, stories with an almost mythic intensity. Baryshnikov, then, was learning to abandon his dramatic origins and adopt a more purely technical approach, while Kirkland was flowering into a dancer of great dramatic presence and emotion.

American Ballet Theatre was the right place for their two worlds to meet, and his next four years with ABT confirmed Baryshnikov’s stature as both a genius and a megastar. Baryshnikov, however, wanted to delve ever more deeply into the modern abstract world: He wanted to dance for Balanchine. He turned his back on stardom and $200,000 a year with ABT to join NYCB at $700 a week. It was in some ways an unexpected choice, since Balanchine was known for an attitude summed up in his remark “ballet is woman” and his refusal to encourage star status within his troupe. To the still-Russian Baryshnikov, the choice made sense. He would dance for the great master, as he had danced for Alexander Pushkin at the Kirov, and he would be immersed in the abstract modern style that so fascinated him.

Baryshnikov debuted with NYCB in 1978 in Balanchine’s speeded-up version of Coppelia, one of the few classical ballets in NYCB’s repertoire. He began systematically to retrain his body in the Balanchine manner, with sudden, unprepared leaps and contorted body positions. His New York debut with NYCB was in Balanchine’s abstract Rubies. Jerome Robbins Robbins, Jerome choreographed Four Seasons for him, premiering in 1979. That year, Baryshnikov danced Balanchine’s Apollo, and by June he had learned twenty-two new ballets by Balanchine and Robbins.

The strain of retraining his body in the Balanchine manner was telling on Baryshnikov. Many critics thought he was unsuited to Balanchine’s style. Balanchine himself was in seriously ill health. When Herman Krawitz, Krawitz, Herman the executive director of ABT, offered Baryshnikov the post of artistic director, he accepted. Baryshnikov would become an administrator. In addition to his own dancing, he would henceforth be responsible for a repertoire of seventy-five ballets, a company of ninety dancers, and an annual budget of ten million dollars. He left NYCB in 1979 and took his position with ABT in 1980.

He could continue to dance as a highly paid guest artist with other companies and on occasion at ABT, but his first duty would be to the company itself. All dancers, even the most skilled, reach a time when it is wise for them to cut back on the rigors of a heavy dancing schedule, and the move to an administrative post often facilitates this transition. Judging by his tenure at ABT, company administration would not be, for Baryshnikov, the path out of performance it has been for so many others.


During more than three decades of Lucia Chase’s Chase, Lucia direction, American Ballet Theatre had been like a family occasionally a dysfunctional family with its own jealousies and pettiness, but a family nevertheless. The ABT star system, with its hierarchy of experience, was part of that family’s stability. New York City Ballet Dance;ballet

Baryshnikov wanted to make ABT into a very different kind of company. He instituted a system of computerized rehearsal schedules, worksheets for individual dancers, and warning letters to let them know when they were coming close to being fired. He expected every one of his dancers to appear for company class every day instead of allowing them to take morning class with their own teachers or coaches, as is usually the case. This was a much more impersonal and businesslike arrangement than the company was used to. He also canceled the regular fall season in New York, giving his dancers the longest rehearsal period in ABT history.

On the night before opening night of the 1980 winter tour, Gelsey Kirkland and Patrick Bissell Bissell, Patrick were fired. The next day, their roles were taken by Susan Jaffe, Jaffe, Susan an eighteen-year-old member of the corps de ballet, and Alexander Godunov. Godunov, Alexander The ABT star system was dead, and Baryshnikov’s alternative giving principal roles to young dancers was under way. Some of the young dancers Baryshnikov promoted, such as Jaffe, Robert LaFosse, and Gil Boggs, were extremely talented, but the overall effect on the company was unsettling.

Baryshnikov had begun teaching ABT the great story ballets, using more recent Kirov versions in place of Nicholas Sergeyev’s Royal Ballet versions of 1912, which had long been standards in ABT’s repertoire. Baryshnikov produced “streamlined” versions of his own, cutting scenes from Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty that he thought were boring, hoping to take ballet further into the entertainment mainstream. The critics were not impressed, seeing his changes as trivializing a great art, or worse, Sovietizing it. His willingness to cut the classics was viewed as cynical.

The fact that he also had streamlined the company into a fundamentally impersonal business-style organization did not help. One dancer referred to Baryshnikov as American Ballet Theatre’s KGB. Older stars were fired or left the company. Young dancers missed the inspiration they received during Chase’s regime by dancing with these older, more mature dancers, stars with a historical knowledge of the interpretations of great roles such as Giselle that they could pass on. Dancing at ABT no longer seemed to be an art; it had become no more than a job.

Baryshnikov himself, by this time, was seldom in evidence. He had attended company class daily at the beginning of his tenure as artistic director, teaching, dropping in on rehearsals, and dancing alongside the company onstage. In February of 1982, he had sustained a knee injury, and his ensuing absence made an already impersonal company seem even more so. One dance writer noted that when Baryshnikov was not around, the dancing suffered. In the fall of 1983, Herman Krawitz was fired and various members of the board of directors quit.

After streamlining the classics, Baryshnikov had turned to more modern choreographers such as Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, George Balanchine, and Twyla Tharp. In 1985, he saw a performance by the “punk princess” Karole Armitage Armitage, Karole and commissioned her to write a work for ABT. The result was Armitage’s portrait of Baryshnikov himself, The Mollino Room. Mollino Room, The (ballet) While five couples waltzed around the stage, the Baryshnikov character danced by himself. He was the sullen loner who could not connect with the dancing couples. His movements were cut short, turned in on themselves.

While Baryshnikov had been acting out in real life this role of a loner who could not connect with the dancers, he also had lent his name to a perfume and a line of clothing, appeared on film, and become co-owner of a fashionable Manhattan restaurant. Baryshnikov was hip, postmodern, an undoubted media star, and an entertainer. But what had happened to the dance?

Gelsey Kirkland’s memoir, Dancing on My Grave, Dancing on My Grave (Kirkland) which appeared in 1986, painted a less than ideal portrait of Baryshnikov, who had been both Kirkland’s lover and her partner in the days of her stardom but who seemed utterly unable to cope with her gradual slide under intense pressure into drug addiction and suicidal depression. The book is an intensely moving and human document, radiant with Kirkland’s love for her art, transfused with the agonies that a young star dancer inevitably faces, entirely honest about her own failings, and insightful in its descriptions of the human qualities of those she worked with. In it, Baryshnikov figures as a man of intense charm and talent who was all too willing to throw his talents away on the whim of a moment, supremely self-obsessed, and frequently devastating to work with. It is not a flattering portrait, and it raises the question of whether Baryshnikov really ever felt the passion for the dance that so clearly possessed Nureyev and for that matter, Kirkland herself.

American Ballet Theatre never became the world’s greatest ballet company under the ten years of Baryshnikov’s direction, as he clearly had hoped that it would. This may have been because he attempted a style of administration that did not suit the American temperament. After leaving ABT, he went on to work with the White Oak Dance Project until 2002, and then on the establishment of the Baryshnikov Arts Center, which opened in New York in November, 2005. Dance;ballet American Ballet Theatre Ballet

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Acocella, Joan. Baryshnikov in Black and White. New York: Bloomsbury, 2002. Represents the dancer’s evolution in 175 black-and-white photographs. Includes annotated captions and choreochronology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aria, Barbara. Misha: The Mikhail Baryshnikov Story. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Interesting account of Baryshnikov’s early training, defection from the Soviet Union, and work in the West, including his time as artistic director of American Ballet Theatre. Black-and-white photo section, no index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">France, Charles Engell. Baryshnikov at Work. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1977. In this oversized book with numerous photos by Martha Swope, Baryshnikov discusses his most famous roles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fraser, John. Private View: Inside Baryshnikov’s American Ballet Theatre. New York: Bantam Books, 1988. Superb black-and-white photo-essay (photos by Eve Arnold) of American Ballet Theatre under Baryshnikov’s direction, with some textual commentary. Features both Baryshnikov and the company, mostly in rehearsal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kirkland, Gelsey, and Greg Lawrence. Dancing on My Grave: An Autobiography. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1986. Lyrical and intensely moving account of the aspirations of a young and brilliant dancer and the pressures of life in a contemporary ballet company, including a candid but unflattering portrait of Baryshnikov as lover and dance partner. Black-and-white photo section, no index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mazo, Joseph H. Dance Is a Contact Sport. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1974. Chronicles day-to-day life in the New York City Ballet, showing up close the dedication and discipline of the dancers, the risks of injury and stress they face, the gossamer illusions of stagecraft, and the joys of performing. Well written and fascinating. Black-and-white photo section, index.

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