A friend's close-up of Baryshnikov; Baryshnikov: From Russia to the West, by Gennady Smakov. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc. $9.95.
This is a through-the-looking-glass peek at Mikhail (Misha) Baryshnikov's 15 -year pirouette across the wonderland of dance. It is not a full-fledged biography, since, as the author's says, that "always marks, if not the end of a career, its eminent demise."
But because Misha is "at the height of his talent" -- working since last September as artistic director of American Ballet Theater -- this is an account of the Soviet defector's achievements thus far. It is offered by a Russian friend, critic, and confidant who now too lives in the West.
The name "Baryshnikov" was first whispered into the author's ear in 1965 by a leading dancer of Leningrad's famed Kirov Ballet Theater. "His ability is unheard of," said Igor Tchernichov. "Unfortunately, he's rather short and looks like a big baby."
Soon thereafter the author, then a 26-year- old critic and professor of European literature, met the 17-year-old dancer, already a local phenomenon, and so began a long personal and professional association.
This account plops the reader down in the front row to watch a career that hit full stride only 10 years after that of another graduate of the Vaganova school, Rudolph Nureyev.
Even in the beginning Misha was being compared to history's ledger of renowned dancers, including the fabled Vaslav Nijinsky. One telling comment is that of "a living witness to the Russian ballet throughout its years of glory," Elizaveta Time. Speaking of Baryshnikov's graduation performance, she said: "You can believe me, my friend, Nijinksy never danced like that and did not possess such devastating charm. No one in my my memory danced the way this boy dances."
From graduation the book follows his development as star of the Kirov, his defection in 1974 in Canada, his career wit the American Ballet Theater (ABT), his choreographic debuts, and his associations with Twyla Tharp, Jerome Robbins, and, finally, George Balanchine.
It was during his 15-month experiment with Balanchine that his quest to extend the boundaries of his classifical Russian experience thorough various American interpretive styles reached its outer limit. The author quotes Baryshnikov as saying: "I'll never regret that I worked with him. He is a great man and a great choreographer. And I think he deflated certain of my fantasies about myself while helping to develop greater confidence in my field."
This is a sober and analytical account, sometimes offering insight at the expense of readability. Considering the author's personal closeness to his subject, it is remarkably detached, unemotional, and objective despite an oftrepeated use of the word "perfect" to describe Baryshnikov's artistry.
Early on the book occasionally reads like a "Who's Who in Ballet History," and this face- place- and name- dropping may sometimes overwhelm the general reader looking for insight into the man and his craft.
There's plenty of this too, however, and enough compelling reading that the faults must be forgiven. One major strength is the comparative study of Russian and American dance schools woven deftly into the narrative.
And, of course, the main strength is the portrait of a dancer and a dream, a stroke more vivid with each struggle conquered. Of course, this is an unfinished portrait. The artistry -- of both subject and author -- invites an encore.