Ballet's Urbane Cowboy, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Faces His Latest Turning Point

updated 04/26/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/26/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In an age when opera stars are pitching credit cards and classical musicians are swapping gags with Johnny Carson, few artists have so gracefully translated Terpsichore to television as Mikhail Baryshnikov. Only eight years after leaping from the Kirov Ballet and Mother Russia, Baryshnikov stars this week in his second high-spirited, campy and engaging TV special, Baryshnikov in Hollywood.

Misha's previous effort, 1980's Baryshnikov on Broadway, with Liza Minnelli, garnered four Emmys. This time the show is mostly Misha, with Shirley MacLaine, Bernadette Peters, Gene Wilder and Dom DeLuise guiding him through Hollywood's Universal lot. Behind the scenes, Misha was equally ubiquitous. He had a hand in casting, conceiving the script (he's developed an uncanny ear for American slang) and editing the final tape. A movie freak who keeps a framed picture of Fred Astaire in his office, Baryshnikov chose Orson Welles as narrator and said kindly of partner Bernadette Peters, "She learns very fast." Responded Peters, "Dancing with him was the thrill of my lifetime."

Misha's talent and hustle have made things happen. After four years as the star of American Ballet Theatre, which enthusiastically embraced him after his defection, Baryshnikov took an unexpected jeté to the New York City Ballet. For more than two years he soaked up the genius of George Balanchine, then bounded back to the ABT, this time as both its star and its artistic director. Calling on other choreographers, he has proved himself in a whole gamut of styles: impish in Twyla Tharp's Push Comes to Shove, heroic in Balanchine's Apollo and athletic in Paul Taylor's Airs.

But at 34, Baryshnikov is facing the future with a small kit bag of troubles. Microsurgery on the torn cartilage in his right knee, after a February dance injury, will keep him in the wings during the eight-week ABT New York season, which begins at the Metropolitan Opera House this week.

Being sidelined only adds to his problems in rebuilding the ABT. In the 20 months since the start of his stewardship, Baryshnikov has been accused of slighting ABT's superstars, like Cynthia Gregory and Fernando Bujones, while promoting younger talent. As a result some critics feel the company has lost its electricity, while fans grumble they are being asked to pay top prices to see unknowns. "I'm not at all against the star system," explains Baryshnikov, who'd better not be, "but young dancers have to have a chance to grow." Though the ABT's box office is down, the company has just renewed Misha's contract through 1986 at a reported $300,000 a year (plus as much as another $200,000 annually for performing).

On the home front, Baryshnikov has completed his fourth year of unwedded bliss with actress Jessica (All That Jazz) Lange, 33. Their daughter, Alexandra, has just turned 1, and, says a friend, "She's the light of Misha's life." The onetime partygoer beams at the mention of Alexandra, whom he calls Shura. "We sing together," he says, and adds, chuckling, "She's picking up my accent." He has settled his "family," as he puts it, in a palatial white mansion on the west bank of the Hudson River within commuting distance (via his silver-gray Mercedes) to ABT's Manhattan studio. Sometimes he brings Alexandra along to rehearsals.

"Ballet is no longer my life," Misha says. "It is my job. My life is my interests—my books, my paintings and my music. I don't want to share this with anybody but my daughter and my lady." Baryshnikov will probably marry Lange when her divorce from former film instructor Paco Grande is final. Now blinded by retinitis pigmentosa, Grande is suing for alimony as well as divorce. Temporarily, Jessica pays him $300 a month. Baryshnikov, who met Lange long after her separation, is not legally involved.

Though still given to Chinese food and cowboy boots, Baryshnikov is calming down. "I am an American now," he says confidently. "I understand much more about myself. Dealing with certain problems takes a lot of strength, a lot of conversations with yourself." And would he want it all for Alexandra? He was excited when she learned to walk early, but he says he wouldn't "suggest" ballet as a career for her. "A lawyer," he says with dollar signs dancing in his eyes, "or an accountant."

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