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Mikhail Baryshnikov in Spotlight at New York Public Library Exhibit

By Della Hasselle | November 30, 2011 6:06pm

UPPER WEST SIDE — When the director of the New York Public Library Jerome Robbins Dance Division found out that the library was acquiring rare archives of famed dancer and actor Mikhail Baryshnikov, she was ecstatic.

Director Jan Schmidt was so excited about the dancer's donation, totaling nearly 700 performance videotapes and thousands of photographs spanning his career as a ballet and modern dancer, that she put together an exhibit.

It was intended as a one-night celebration with staffers and select guests, but the preview proved to be so popular that it was then opened to the public as a free pop-up exhibit in the Library for the Performing Arts. Opened officially in late November, Materials from the Mikhail Baryshnikov Archive has now just been extended for public view for the second time, giving the public a chance to see documentation of Baryshnikov's multifaceted career until Dec. 20.

"People are loving it," Schmidt said. "Because Mikhail Barishnikov was one of the most celebrated dancers of 20th century and his work spans most of the dance forms for stage, he really stretches himself. And he’s a beautiful dancer."

The video portion of the exhibit is broken down into four 20 to 30-minute segments, chronicling his international career: Early Years, Ballet in America, Broadway and Beyond, and Modern Dance.

Footage from the Early Years includes a 10-year-old Baryshnikov performing in Russia, while other clips show the dancer's famous leaps and athletic partnering in works by choreographers George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Merce Cunningham, and Martha Graham.

The Modern Dance section shows Balanchine sweeping across the stage in pieces from his newest company, White Oak Project. The footage shows excerpts of works by modern greats of perfomance art including Mark Morris and Twyla Tharp.

"The pleasure of seeing these clips one after another of him turning and leaping is very exciting," Schmidt commented.

"It's fun to just sit there and say 'Ooh! Look at this!'," she added.

Most of the photographs are from Barishnikov's time spent as a soloist and director of American Ballet Theatre, and his short time with New York City Ballet. There are also pictures of his career with Russia's Kirov Ballet, taken before he defected to the West in 1974.

He's also shown performing classics such as "Don Quixote" and "The Creation of the World" with his many partners, most famously including Gelsey Kirkland, Natalia Makarova, and Judith Jamison.

Other materials include handwritten letters from famous actors, photo albums with presidents and more.

One of the best things about the collection, Schmidt added, is that it appeals to both dancers and people who have never stepped foot inside a studio.

"For the casual viewer and someone who is a dance fan you see an amazing breadth artistry," she said. "For the afficiado, you get a chance to see something in its entirity. If they're doing the same works restaged they can see how he performed it."

For  Jacqueline Z. Davis, the executive director of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Baryshnikov proved to be one reason to bend library rules.

“To present an exhibition before a collection is processed is unusual for the Library for the Performing Arts,” Davis said. “Because this collection is so special, however, we have decided to do so."