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Baryshnikov’s status as a cold war trophy guaranteed a level of celebrity but his movie-star looks, easy charm and heart-catchingly beautiful dancing meant that he was soon on the friendliest terms with the A-list. The dropped names land as softly and modestly as his fabled tours en l’air as he recalls a one-off performance with Frank Sinatra.

“I first met him at a fundraising event. There were the Sinatras, Cary Grant with his wife, Dean Martin – imagine this table!” When Sinatra was organising Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural gala in 1985, Baryshnikov was one of the stars he called. “I was in the White House quite often – at that time I was not yet Democrat,” he laughs. “But I liked them personally and Nancy [Reagan] was sweet. Sinatra said, ‘Please can I dance something?’ and I said, ‘Well, Frank, if you’ll sing, I’ll dance.’ ” Twyla Tharp’s choreography of “One For My Baby” was the gala’s closing number: Baryshnikov on the stage, Sinatra seated on its edge.

The starry pairing was never repeated but Baryshnikov has always been far more interested in rehearsal than performance. Nureyev was the opposite but the men hit it off immediately when Baryshnikov paid him a visit during the Kirov’s 1970 tour to London. I ask if the sight of the jet-setting Nureyev in his six-bedroom mansion triggered a wish for wider horizons?

“No, no, no. At that time my teacher was still alive and it was unfinished business. Not even once, not even when Natasha left.” Kirov ballerina Natalia “Natasha” Makarova defected a few days after Baryshnikov’s meeting with Nureyev. “I thought (stupidly) that she didn’t have enough stamina and willpower to be her own person,” his face rumples into another smile. “How wrong I was!”

His own escape, four years later, is usually portrayed as a consequence of his insatiable intellectual curiosity but Baryshnikov is not so sure. “I don’t know if I really was that curious in 1974. I was a bit angry, I was a bit disappointed, my personal life was on the rocks . . . but by that time I had met a few people from abroad. People who spoke languages, travelled, worked freely, you know? I would never ever in Kirov Ballet have had personal freedom – period.”

As the bill arrives (a fairly hefty £81 for two courses with tap water), we rehearse a brief ballet d’action over who is paying – “I feel very awkward,” he says. But the conversation continues.

He says that, once in the west, he could work with anyone, rapidly absorbing new disciplines. He and Nureyev joined forces with American dance pioneer Martha Graham. “With Graham technique you cannot just do this” – his fingers click-click-click Don Quixote-style and a waiter twitches like a gun dog – “Nureyev compressed the rehearsal period to a minimum but I would work for months on a 20-minute piece. I didn’t care that I was not on stage. But it’s not true for the theatre somehow; theatre allows you to get something new every performance. Dance is somehow . . . autopilot.”

It never looked that way. For all the classical perfection there was an insouciance and spontaneity about his dancing that recalled his idol Fred Astaire.

“We only met once. I actually did the speech about him at the New York Film Institute and I was seated at my friend James Cagney’s table and I have this picture and I am sitting between James Cagney and Fred Astaire. I can burn all my photos – of my family, of everybody – but this one would definitely survive.”

Mikhail Baryshnikov’s photography exhibition ‘Dancing Away’ opens on November 29 at Contini Art UK, London. continiartuk.com

Louise Levene is an FT dance critic

Illustration by James Ferguson


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