Born in the former Soviet Union, dancer/actor Mikhail Baryshnikov came to ballet at the advanced age of 15. Because of his extraordinary leg-muscle strength, he was permitted to join Leningrad's Kirov Company, in which he worked his way up to featured soloist. During the Kirov's Canadian tour in 1974, Baryshnikov disappeared for several days, and when he resurfaced it was in the United States he asked for political asylum. The decision had as much to do with aesthetics as ideology; in Russia, even a ballet star could only go so far socially and financially. Baryshnikov joined the American Ballet, but later in what was considered a controversial move, he switched to George Balanchine's New York City Ballet. The reason was simple: Balanchine had strong links to musical comedy, and Baryshnikov was a lifelong fan of such American musicals as Oklahoma, West Side Story, and even Where's Charley? This devotion would later be manifested in a well-received 1980 ABC television special, Baryshnikov on Broadway. In 1977, the dancer made his American film debut in The Turning Point (1977), the most successful ballet-themed motion picture since The Red Shoes in 1948. For his down-to-earth acting as much as for his unquestioned dance skills, Baryshnikov received an Oscar nomination. That he quickly adapted himself to the Hollywood lifestyle was evident in his private life; he fathered a child by actress Jessica Lange, who ultimately moved on to a long-term relationship with actor/playwright Sam Shepard. Baryshnikov did not spare himself in his work as he grew older, and magazines frequently featured close-up photos of his battered knees and ankles. By the very nature of his reputation, he did not lend himself to being cast in "normal" film roles, and his best film showing outside of The Turning Point was in White Nights (1985), in which he played a ballet star who'd defected from the Soviet Union only to be kidnapped back into his homeland. The film wasn't exactly like real life, but it did allow him to trade steps with famed American dancer Gregory Hines -- and even permitted Baryshnikov to dabble in Errol Flynn-style acrobatics in his efforts to elude the Soviets.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- Defected from the Soviet Union in 1974 when he escaped from his Russian ballet group at the end of their last performance in Toronto, Canada.
- Stayed in seclusion in Canada for a month until he was allowed to move freely through Canada and the United States.
- Spoke very little English when he met Jessica Lange in 1976, and they sparked a romantic relationship by speaking in their only common language, French.
- Got his big break in American television with his 1977 Christmas-season performance of The Nutcracker on CBS, which quickly became a holiday classic.
- Founded the White Oak Dance Project in 1990 after leaving his position as the Artistic Director of the American Ballet Theater; the project consists of new ballet work for older dancers to perform around the world.
- Has received three Honorary Degrees, from New York University (2006), Shenandoah Conservatory of Shenandoah University (2007) and Montclair State University (2008).