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Mikhail Baryshnikov

How can something as active as dance be contained in a still?


NOV 28, 2022 | ISSUE 7

Mikhail Baryshnikov by Annie Leibovitz

Dance is a medium of action, and is perhaps one of the most difficult art forms to capture in photography. Looking for the Dance, Mikhail Baryshnikov’s latest exhibit in partnership with Lighthouse Immersive, takes up the task of expressing movement in photography. Beginning September 18th, Looking for the Dance will be presented at One Yonge Street in Toronto, alongside select images from his previous series, Dance This Way, and Dominican Moves. For this Canadian collaboration, the acclaimed dancer, actor, and photographer has put together a breathtaking display of his quest to capture dance in transformative moments. It is a document of his journeys, from exploring the milonga and tango of Argentina, to the South Indian Odissi styles. In his own words, “On these journeys, more than the shape, I am looking for emotional impact through colors, gestures, and steps of the dance and dancers.” Despite being stills, the photos are vigorously alive. After the success of the exhibition, inaugurated in 2013 at the Contini Art Gallery in Venice, and its subsequent presentation at the Cortina d’Ampezzo location, Baryshnikov’s series makes its way to Toronto.

Those familiar with his work will know that Baryshnikov is considered one of the greatest dancers of our time, and that Toronto is a special place for him. After launching his career at the Kirov Ballet Company in St. Petersburg, he escaped the Soviet Union in 1974 while on tour in Toronto. At 26, Baryshnikov finished a performance at the Meridian Theatre, and promptly slipped out the back, evading his KGB handlers and sprinting to a nearby getaway car. He then hid out in Canada until he was granted political asylum, going on to dance with major companies in the West. His dancing distinguished itself then and now via his clarity of imagery, marrying impressive technical physicality with a deep emotional and dramatic prowess. At first, he was hesitant to take up the camera for dancers, as he considered it monotonous and shallow replicas of reality. How could something as active as dance be contained in a still? Looking for the Dance provides Baryshnikov’s latest answer to that question. The particular style of his body of work has become known for its amorphous quality, capturing not only how the dance looks, but also how it feels in the body.

This technique for capturing dancers is incredibly fruitful. We get to view not just the separate movements but also the connective tissue between, as the follow-through of each gesture is made perceptible. Baryshnikov displays bodies interacting in a space as the dancers blur into one another: the many become one, while remaining within their individual place in the dance. Having the subjects meld into one another with his technique also highlights the ephemeral nature of dance, capturing both the individual and communal components. In a sense, he has indeed done the impossible. Looking at the photographs, they seem to move on their own, so thoroughly are the arcs, shapes, and movements captured. The images tell us not only where the dancer was, but where they are headed, giving us a small journey inside each static image.

Looking at these photographs is also an emotional experience. Steps, gestures, and facial expressions are highlighted amongst the frenzy of dance. Vibrant lights and colours commingle in the images, giving the subjects a tangible aura for the camera to observe. As energetically charged as the photos are, they still manage to capture the precision in the dancers’ movements. Baryshnikov’s images of the tango have a silken quality to them, again successfully portraying the sweeping circles each pair is rotating within, not unlike orbiting planets. The softness in light, movement, and expression, make the sensuality of the dance more palpable. It’s almost dizzying, though without the sense of nausea.

Apart from capturing their technique, Baryshnikov manages, in his photographs, to highlight the cultural significance of dance. The movements emphasize a sort of sacredness to the entire scene, each gesture holding the weight of its history and cathartic effect on the dancers. There’s a suggestion that dance is transformative; the camera picks up how dancers are elevated through their dance, internally and externally. Some stills are even transparent, successfully translating the ethereal nature of dance to a photograph. The images are alive with passion, effort, and grace. Each one thrills as uniquely as the subjects themselves. With Looking For the Dance, Baryshnikov has once again proven the value of looking at dance from the perspective of a dancer.