Mikhail Baryshnikov’s photography captures his admiration for the spirit of dance, but ‘I couldn’t dance the tango like that to save my life’

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In a performance career spanning six decades, Mikhail Baryshnikov has gained global fame as a dance superstar and versatile stage and screen actor. It’s likely that more people remember him as Carrie Bradshaw’s love interest in “Sex and the City” than never saw her in tights as “Swan Lake” Prince Siegfried, but Baryshnikov was a skilled photographer? Not so much.

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That’s about to change for local audiences 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 Yong St. into a slew of event spaces, will debut its intimate new gallery with “Looking for the Dance,” which is one of Baryshnikov’s traveling photographic installations. Most recent. The collection reflects a different facet of the Latvian-born artist’s career-long quest to penetrate the physical and spiritual origins of dance in all its diverse manifestations.


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

“Looking for Dance” focuses on two fundamentally different forms, the authentic Argentine tango found in Buenos Aires’ milonga or dance hall, and the carefully refined Odissi style of Indian classical dance practiced in the village of Nrityagram, a residential school and community. . North of Bangalore (Bangalore). Some of the works from past exhibitions are included and provide an opportunity to see Baryshnikov’s own development as a photographer.

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You might think that one of the world’s most photographed dancers, once holding the camera, would choose dance as her natural subject. In fact, it took Baryshnikov several years to turn his lens towards dance and then only when he felt he had found a way to bypass the typical frozen-in-time approach of traditional dance photography to create obsolete transitions of movement. be able to catch Give dance its magical charm.

Even as a teenage ballet student in Riga and St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), Baryshnikov was surrounded by theater 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 an overseas tour and photograph whatever his fancy.

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

Baryshnikov began to take photography more seriously, upgrading his equipment but still mostly confined his subjects to family, friends and records of his travels. Yet his earliest published photographs, still all black-and-white, show an acute awareness of form and play of light and shadow.

Then, as he deepened his understanding of photography as an art form, Baryshnikov came across the works of artists who offered just the point of view he innately wanted. At the center of these was Russian-American photographer, designer and educator Alexei Brodovich, who became the influential longtime art director of the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar. This led to the discovery of the experimental work of photographers such as Paul Himmel, Ilse Bing and Irving Penn.

“I found that the abandonment of the crystalline image in favor of blurred edges and amorphous shapes approximates the fervor of the dance in the performance,” writes Baryshnikov in the catalog for the earlier exhibition,

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

Although a wonderfully trained ballet dancer, Baryshnikov hones artistry and passionate commitment to dance 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 the whole culture deeply through its dance.”

Baryshnikov was very selective in his choice of professional dance subjects. A longtime fan of Merce Cunningham, Baryshnikov devoted nearly a year to photographing the modern dance icon’s company. This led to another exhibition and a book, “Mercy My Way” in 2008.

As a ballet star in the 1970s and 80s, and later as a contemporary dancer and actor, Baryshnikov often traveled to Buenos Aires, where he searched for the most interesting dance halls to admire the passion and dedication he had. with whom they used to dance tango.

“I became obsessed. I knew the best places were to find real tango, not the obscene Broadway version. They come to Milonga Hall as if to satisfy some spiritual need. The way they hold on to the tradition Do, I love: grace, dignity, care to detail. It’s like a family tradition in which different generations dance together.”

And did Baryshnikov part?

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

The images resulting from those visits are some of the most evocative in the exhibition. As soon as you see them, you begin to hear intoxicating music, smell the scents and feel the pulse of the movement. Intentional blurring effects have an almost abstract, graphical quality. For those accustomed to taking foliage through ballet magazines full of glamorous studio portraits or capturing moments of acrobatic virtuosity, Baryshnikov offers an arrestingly visceral alternative. The emphasis of his images expands on his borders, rather than primarily contained compositions.

The chain of Nrityagram village is a flame of colour. Images of accomplished adult Odissi dancers are accompanied by many young students as they absorb the complexities of eye and head movements and symbolic hand gestures. You can see the flaws but also feel the eagerness to learn.

“On weekends, children from everywhere come for lessons,” Baryshnikov said. “I’ve seen a good deal of Indian classical dance elsewhere, but seeing it was such a privilege, such a spiritual practice. It’s dance as a way of life. They can’t live without it. It’s too much to witness. It’s an extraordinary thing.”

The pandemic has put an impediment on Baryshnikov’s photographic journey, but he speaks with enthusiasm about a dance event that was presented at Rio de Janeiro’s fountains where teams of young people gather to compete.

“They call it ‘Bell Charm,'” he said. “There are signs that say, ‘No guns, no knives, no violence.'”

Baryshnikov has already photographed some of these events. Clearly he is eager to return.

“Looking for the Dance” is at Lighthouse Artspace, 1 Yong St., September 18 through October 17. see lighthouseimmersive.com/looking-for-the-dance For details.
Michael Crabb is a freelance writer who reviews dance and opera performances for Star.

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