Vogue legend Leiomy Maldonado brings passion, power, and family to the floor.
The multihyphenate performer, whose name is synonymous with dance, allows artists to create “mostly by leaving them alone.”
AS A 10-YEAR-OLD in 1980, I had many posters in my bedroom. The largest one, still shrink-wrapped to keep it pristine, was the black-and-white headshot of Mikhail Baryshnikov. Wearing a slightly ripped mesh top, he had sleepy eyes and looked impossibly handsome and exotic. I had recently seen “The Turning Point,” the 1977 movie about two frenemy ballerinas starring Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine. It was way too sophisticated for my young self (apart from a notable catfight between Bancroft and MacLaine in the Lincoln Center fountains), but I immediately fell for the overwhelmingly charismatic Yuri, the love interest dancer channeling something otherworldly in his solos. This was, of course, Baryshnikov. I kept a scrapbook, and noted his girlfriends and that his daughter and I shared a name.
I learned he was a prodigy, training under renowned teacher Alexander Pushkin (not to be confused with the Russian poet) at the Vaganova Ballet Academy in what was then Leningrad. By adolescence, he was a star in the Soviet Union, and his 1974 defection from the country while touring in Canada was so dramatic it made front-page news and was dramatized in the 1985 film “White Nights,” starring Isabella Rossellini and Gregory Hines. (This is the same film in which Baryshnikov casually executes an 11-point pirouette on a bet with Hines.) As a young celebrity in New York City, he orbited the flashy universes of Studio 54 and Elaine’s. Still, a more sobering truth is: He left his family, culture, and home to seize artistic freedom. In the West, he collaborated with the most important choreographers of the twentieth century, including George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, Trisha Brown, and Mark Morris, among countless others. He was the artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre between 1980 and 1989. And several times in the early aughts, I caught the subway to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a performance by the White Oak Dance Project, a company he and Morris founded in 1990. The performances were always a revelation. And then there was his extensive theater work, from Beckett to Chekhov to Kafka; his photography; and his guest appearances on “Sex and the City,” as Carrie Bradshaw’s boyfriend, Aleksandr Petrovsky.
With the publication of her debut novel, the musician sings the praises of trying...
Where does this willingness to embrace multiple disciplines, to thread the high art–popular culture needle come from? “Restlessness combined with curiosity has motivated most anything I’ve done. It’s a good way to channel anxiety into something positive,” he says. “But it’s never a guarantee that what I’m doing will be successful. I don’t like that uncertainty, that possibility of failure, but I think it’s necessary to the process of taking artistic risks.” In 2005, he founded Baryshnikov Arts Center to encourage this fearlessness in artists of varying disciplines. It’s housed in a stunning six-story building on Manhattan’s West Side, with a theater that can seat more than 200 and four light-filled rehearsal studios, two of which combine to create an additional performance space.
Baryshnikov explains that the center creates “opportunities for artists, mostly by leaving them alone.” There is no expectation that they perform or accomplish finished pieces. Process and exploration themselves are the goals. “It’s been surprising to me how much people appreciate the chance to try something new in a fully functional private space,” he says, noting that “many of BAC’s staff are working or formerly working artists, and that seems to be key to knowing what artists need.”
A case in point: The BAC’s new executive director, Sonja Kostich, is a former dancer who met Baryshnikov as a student when she was 15. “I have witnessed him provide a place and a vision for so many,” she recalls. “One of the things that has always distinguished [Baryshnikov] from other dancers, and which dancers have always regarded with such awe and respect, is his ability to transcend the boundaries of artistic disciplines.” She explains that today’s younger artists are “juggling jobs, side businesses, families, and artistic practices. They are navigating a new world of personal branding and becoming successful businesspeople in addition to being artists.” While this is impressive, the emphasis is often on the external image. “If you aren’t producing content to share with hundreds of thousands of followers on a daily basis, it can feel like you are a failure. Of course, this is a falsehood — so much of being an artist is about contemplation and a flourishing inner life. At BAC, we strive to preserve a bit of space and time for artists to have that necessary quiet.”
Now in its 18th year, Kostich is working to expand programming and funding to support artists to discover their own creative destinies. For Baryshnikov, this means “the responsibility to create at your maximum capacity without interference or censorship, including efforts considered politically incorrect or uncomfortable.” When I ask him about the legacy of BAC on the eve of his 75th birthday, his blue eyes grow wide. “This will be around forever.” He says “forever” several times, growing more emphatic with each “forever.”
I recently watched his “Le Corsaire” solo from “The Turning Point” again. The clip is only about a minute long, but his dancing still moves me profoundly. But for Baryshnikov, one of the best dancers of all time, a name forever synonymous with dance itself, his greatest legacy may be the gift of artistic freedom for generations to come.
In addition to her work with Departures, Alexandra Brodsky is a filmmaker and photographer. Her films have been screened at venues such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Tribeca Film Festival, and the American Film Institute. Recent photography publications and exhibits include Index Magazine, Pearl Press, Humble Arts Foundation, Too Tired Press, and Charcoal Book Club’s Chico Review. She is an alumnus of the Screenwriters’ Colony in Nantucket, the Film Independent’s Screenwriters Lab, and a Fulbright Scholar. She is also a founder of Quality Pictures, with Mary Stuart Masterson and Cassandra Del Viscio, a Hudson Valley–based production company making quality entertainment for social impact.
Born in Jerusalem in 1971 to a family of Moroccan, Syrian, Bucharian, and Italian descent, Carucci’s work has been included in many solo and group exhibitions worldwide and her photographs are included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Houston Museum of Fine Art, among others. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, Details, New York Magazine, W, Aperture, and ARTnews. She has published numerous monographs. Carucci teaches at the School of Visual Arts and is represented by Edwynn Houk Gallery.
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Woody Guthrie Center shines a light on one of America’s most influential...
With the publication of her debut novel, the musician sings the praises of trying new things and...
The cookbook author and artist behind “Salad for President” shares her ultimate food and art...
A youth-driven creative renaissance is lighting up South Korea.