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As audiences at A.B.T.'s spring season in Washington, D.C. can see this week, Baryshnikov at 27 ranks with these dancers. It is less than a year since he broke away from a Soviet touring company in Toronto, but the public has already made him a superstar and calls him by his nickname. To discourage long lines last winter, a ticket outlet in Manhattan put up a sign saying "Misha tickets all sold out."
Baryshnikov (pronounced Ba-rish-ni-koff) is a one-man theatrical event that nearly defies summary. He is an unbelievable technician with invisible technique. Most dancers, even the great ones, make obvious preliminaries to leaps. He simply floats into confounding feats of acrobatics and then comes to still, collected repose. He forces the eye into a double take: did that man actually do that just now? Dance Critic Walter Terry says that "Baryshnikov is probably the most dazzling virtuoso we have seen. He is more spectacular in sheer technique than any other male dancer. What he actually does, no one can really define. His steps are in no ballet dictionary. And he seems to be able to stop in mid-air and sit in space." Patricia Wilde, who teaches in the A.B.T. school, has seen him "put a whole lot of steps together and do them in the air in perfect classical form. Most dancers do this on the ground, but not in the air."
Baryshnikov is a fine actor as well. He takes open, youthful joy in being onstage, while respecting what he calls "the sensitive weave" of the work's overall design. His Albrecht in Giselle, for example, is a coltish kid in love with the idea of love, touchingly unable to comprehend that, as a nobleman, he just cannot have this terrific peasant girl. He excels at shrewd, straightforward comedy. In Frederick Ashton's Les Patineurs, the dancers appear to be on ice skates. Misha seems about to fall over backward at timesa mime performance that Marcel Marceau might envy. Perhaps his greatest tour de force so far is Roland Petit's Le Jeune Homme et la Mart. The ballet is a cartoon of existential angst, but, leaping over bed, chair and table, Baryshnikov turns it into a young man's rage at mortality.
In all his roles, Baryshnikov fairly radiates daring. It has been suggested that he must believe in Laurence Olivier's dictum that nothing is really interesting onstage unless the performer is risking sudden death. It is a notion that amuses him: "It is not so important that the actor or dancer feel he is risking death as it is that the audience should feel he is." Much more important to Baryshnikov is the insistence that "the essence of all art is to have pleasure in giving pleasure." In that sentence, one feels, he comes closer to the heart of his appeal than any observer can. Audiences love a man taking not just enormous joy in his work, but still greater satisfaction in the knowledge that he may very well be the best of the best.