Over a six-decade career the dance superstar has moved from classical ballet to contemporary dance and acting to photography. Mikhail Baryshnikov tells Michael Crabb taking his evocative photos, on display in ‘Looking for the Dance’ in Toronto, is ‘like rediscovering the very essence of dance.’

Published by Toronto Star
By Michael Crabb (Special to the Star)
September 15, 2021



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Mikhail Baryshnikov, superstar ballet dancer, says about his photography, 

For me it’s like rediscovering the very essence of dance.

Photo Courtesy of: Lighthouse Immersive

In a performing career that spans six decades Mikhail Baryshnikov has achieved global fame as a dance superstar and versatile stage and screen actor. It’s likely more people remember him as Carrie Bradshaw’s love interest in “Sex and the City” than ever saw him in tights as “Swan Lake’s” Prince Siegfried, but Baryshnikov the accomplished photographer? Not so much.


For local audiences that is about to change as Toronto joins a growing list of major cities around the world to host exhibitions of Baryshnikov’s revealingly unconventional but richly evocative dance photographs.


Toronto’s Lighthouse Immersive, which has repurposed the former Toronto Star printing plant at 1 Yonge St. into a cluster of event spaces, will initiate its intimate new gallery with “Looking for the Dance,” the most recent of Baryshnikov’s travelling photographic installations. The collection reflects a different aspect of the Latvian-born artist’s career-long quest to penetrate the physical and spiritual core of dance in all its varied manifestations.

An untitled image from Mikhail Baryshnikov’s travelling photographic installation “Looking for the Dance.”

Photo Courtesy of: Lighthouse Immersive

I can see the almost spiritual obsession with dance that I myself have felt, but now observe it from the outside,” Baryshnikov says by phone from his home in New York. “For me it’s like rediscovering the very essence of dance.”


Looking for the Dance” focuses on two radically different forms, the authentic Argentinian tango to be found in the milongas or dance halls of Buenos Aires and the meticulously refined Odissi style of Indian classical dance aspractised in Nrityagram Village, a residential school and community to the north of Bengaluru (Bangalore). Some works from past exhibitions are included and provide the chance to observe Baryshnikov’s own evolution as a photographer.


You might think that one of the world’s most photographed dancers would, once possessed of a camera, choose dance as his natural subject. In fact, it took Baryshnikov many years to turn his lens toward dance and then only when he felt he’d found a way to bypass the frozen-in-time approach typical of conventional dance photography in order to capture the evanescent transitions of movement that give dance its magical allure.


Even as a teenage ballet student in Riga and Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad), Baryshnikov was surrounded by theatre photographers. One of them, Leonid Lubianitsky, became a friend and, like Baryshnikov, eventually settled in the United States. Around 1980, Lubianitsky gave Baryshnikov some black and white film and urged him to take his simple point-and-shoot Nikon on a foreign tour and photograph whatever took his fancy.

I got lucky with some of the pictures,” Baryshnikov recalls. “I really enjoyed the process and something got under my skin. It became my little hobby and my little secret, and a good way to take my mind off dance.”


Baryshnikov began to take photography more seriously, upgraded his equipment but still mostly restricted his subjects to family, friends and records of his travels. Yet even his earliest published photographs, still all black and white, show an acute awareness of form and the play of light and shade.


Then, as he deepened his understanding of photography as an art form, Baryshnikov came across the work of artists who offered just the approach he’d instinctively craved. At the centre of these was Alexey Brodovitch, the Russian-born American photographer, designer and educator who became the influential long-time art director of fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar. This led to the discovery of the experimental work of such photographers as Paul Himmel, Ilse Bing and Irving Penn.


I discovered that abandoning the crystalline image in favour of blurred edges and amorphous figures approximates the excitement of dance in performance,” writes Baryshnikov in the catalogue for an earlier exhibition."


The advent of digital photography encouraged him to experiment. Baryshnikov, then owning a vacation home in the Dominican Republic, found his first dance subjects in the streets and nightclubs of Santo Domingo. The results became a 2007 exhibition called “Dominican Moves.


Although a superbly trained ballet dancer, Baryshnikov is respectful of the artistry and passionate commitment to dance found beyond the professional stage.


It fascinates me why people dance, how they move a certain way,” he explains. “Dance is such a transparent art. You can study a whole culture in depth through its dance.


Baryshnikov was very selective in his choice of professional dance subjects. Long an admirer of Merce Cunningham, Baryshnikov devoted almost a year on and off to photograph the modern dance icon’s company. That generated another exhibition and a book, “Merce My Way,” in 2008.


As a ballet star through the 1970s and ’80s, and later contemporary dancer and actor, Baryshnikov often travelled to Buenos Aires where he would search out the most interesting dance halls to admire the passion and dedication with which their habitués danced the tango.


I became obsessed. I knew the best places to go to find the real tango, not the vulgarized Broadway version. They come to milonga halls as if to satisfy some spiritual need. I like the way they hold to tradition: the grace, the dignity, the care for detail. It is like a family tradition with different generations dancing together.”


And did Baryshnikov participate?


I was invited but I had to apologize. Nobody seemed to believe me, but I couldn’t dance the tango like that to save my life.”


The images generated from those visits are among the most evocative in the exhibition. As you look at them you begin to hear the intoxicating music, smell the scents and feel the pulse of the movement. The deliberate blurring effects have an almost abstract, painterly quality. For those accustomed to leafing through ballet magazines full of glamorous studio portraits or captured moments of acrobatic virtuosity, Baryshnikov offers an arrestingly visceral alternative. Instead of primly contained compositions, the thrust of his images spills over their borders.


The series from Nrityagram Village is a blaze of colour. Alongside images of accomplished adult Odissi dancers there are several of young students as they absorb the complexities of eye and head movements, and symbolic hand gestures. You can see the imperfections but also sense the eagerness to learn.


On weekends, kids from all over come for lessons,” Baryshnikov said. “I have watched a good deal of Indian classical dance elsewhere, but seeing it there was such a privilege, such a spiritual exercise. It’s dance as a way of life. They cannot live without it. It’s something very extraordinary to witness.”


The pandemic has put a damper on Baryshnikov’s photographic journeying, but he speaks with enthusiasm about a dance phenomenon he was introduced to in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro where teams of young people gather to compete.


They call it ‘baile charme,’” he said. “There are signs that say, ‘No guns, no knives, no violence.’


Baryshnikov has already photographed some of these events. It’s clear he’s eager to return.


Looking for the Dance”  is at the Lighthouse Artspace, 1 Yonge St.,  Sept. 18 to Oct. 17.  See lighthouseimmersive.com/looking-for-the-dance  for details.


Michael Crabb is a freelance writer who reviews dance and opera performances for the Star

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