Regent’s Park Road is blocked by a film crew for Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van. A few photographers are hoping for a glimpse of Maggie Smith but ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov slips into Odette’s restaurant unobserved. “Nobody’s interested in a 66-year-old man,” he says. “I am very lucky in this respect, I can go anywhere. The paparazzi lost interest in me 40 years ago.”
The self-effacement is habitual and not always entirely convincing but Baryshnikov talks readily and laughs often. He has just arrived from Milan where he has been discussing a play based on Ballets Russes legend Vaslav Nijinsky with avant-garde director Robert Wilson but this four-day stopover in London is centred on another of his creative outlets: his dance photography.
He smiles, already relaxed. “We don’t have to talk about photography,” he says, then tells me he was given his first camera 40 years ago, shortly after his defection from the Soviet Union to the west during a tour to Toronto in 1974.
“For the first few years it was just friends, places, like a travel notebook. I never – not once – photographed dance but something clicked in the Dominican Republic [where he has a house]: a couple of Presidente beers and the people just get up and dance – on the street, in a dance hall, at a gas station, anywhere.”
The photographs in his new exhibition, Dancing Away, his first in London, are a far cry from the frozen moments of the typical ballet photograph: a bid to capture the energy flow of the moving body. He explains: “If the ballerina leg is slightly, you know –” at this his arm flies up and breaks awkwardly at the elbow – “it looks really clumsy but if it’s in a modern [dance] guise, it’s really appealing.”
The arm in the air has summoned a waiter and I turn, somewhat anxiously, to the menu. Research suggests that Baryshnikov, who still puts himself through a (modified) ballet class most mornings, is something of a picky eater: no rice, no wheat, no pasta.
“I try . . . no milk products, some days a gluten-free diet, you know?” his hands begin absently buttering a slice of gluten-rich, multigrain soda bread. “But I’m cheating . . . ”
His navy blue Italian suit is cut on the slimmest of lines. Have the bathroom scales never bothered him?
He sits up a fraction straighter like a man showing his chest size to a saleslady. “Since I was 18, 19, I’ve kept the same weight. When I was younger I got a little bulkier – you have to have a juicier body because you are lifting . . . ” – the tiniest roll across the shoulders hints at the muscles needed for the overhead lifts in Giselle, one of the classics that established his superstar reputation when he first danced with American Ballet Theatre in 1974. “Baryshnikov crams traditional roles with new vitality and in them he seems literally to be flying out of the 19th into the 20th century,” as Arlene Croce put it in The New Yorker.
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