As a classic Russian ballet dancer, Mikhail Baryshnikov is an unlikely fan of modern American dance. Yet since abandoning his homeland for the West in 1974, he has opened his heart to many art forms that would have been alien when he was a star of St. Petersburg's Kirov Ballet.
Now 60, he has danced with modern and classical companies worldwide, spent 10 years as artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre in New York, co-founded the White Oak Dance Project with Mark Morris, starred in five films, written two children's books, established a namesake art center and foundation in New York City, and taken up photography.
"Merce My Way," an exhibit of Baryshnikov's recent photos of the Merce Cunningham dance troupe, is on view through Aug. 2 at the Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis. In images of swirling color, he tries to capture the dancers' kinetic energy as they leap and spin through space.
Before the show's opening last weekend, he discussed his work in a wide-ranging interview.
Q Do you have many ties to Minnesota?
A Yes. I love Minneapolis and came here often, especially in the '70s, '80s and '90s. And there are a lot of connections to these photos because of Merce, who has performed at the Walker [Art Center] so often.
Q After your long dance career, why have you taken up writing, acting, photography?
A I fear to get really bored with life probably. For the last 30 years I have had many different interests, but I was afraid to be just a dancer. I was kind of running away from it a bit here and there, but I have never stopped dancing. I'm going on tour in July and will be doing a new dance in Italy and Greece -- Athens.
Q How do you balance your busy life?
A My schedule is kind of chaotic, but every day I try to spend at least an hour dedicated to things not related to my schedule. I like what [the late painter] Bob Rauschenberg said when he was asked how he lived. He said, "I wake up in the morning and ask, 'What should I do today?' Then I ask, 'What shouldn't I do?' Then I say, 'Yes! I'll do that.'"
Q You've been taking black-and-white photos of landscapes, portraits and street scenes for years, but only recently started doing dance pictures. How did that begin?
A We have a beach home in the Dominican Republic and I took a few cameras down there. People there are obsessed with music and they dance everywhere, at bus stops, on the street, in dance halls. I started photographing them with different cameras, indoors, outdoors. After a few months, I collected a few of those images and started to show them to different people. The first show was "Dominican Moves," at Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York in 2007.
Q You've danced with Merce Cunningham, photographed his troupe and studied his choreography for 30 years. Why do you admire him?
A He has an incredible mind and creative spirit. He's still choreographing and teaching at age 88, though he's now in a wheelchair. He's my hero. Life without Merce, and dance without Merce, would be a dull, dull life.
Q How did you take your photos of Cunningham's troupe?
A I photographed his company onstage during the final rehearsals. They let me be a fly on the wall and then run in front of the dancers, taking my photos and doing my own dance with the camera.
Q You use film for landscape, portrait and street photographs, but switch to digital for dance images. Why?
A I was interested in a blurry effect, which gives an impression of movement to the viewer, and you get that when you switch into certain modes with digital. Also, you see immediately the results instead of waiting several days for negatives to be developed.
Q Do you do your own processing and printing?
A I love to work with negatives and I'm good at cropping and lighting, but I'm practically zero as a lab rat. Since I'm not very good at that, I don't spend too much time in the darkroom, but I do work with a lab technician. And with digital, I work on every detail.
Q Why are the movement effects so important?
A Traditional photos of dancers frozen in space are very beautiful, but they do not tell the story of the genesis of the movement, of what came before or what comes after. For me, [my] photos are like a totally slow-motion film or photography in motion.
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431