Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Mikhail Baryshnikov Anecdote

In my years in banquets, I only encountered two ballet troupes. One had Mikhail Baryshnikov in it and the other one didn't. I know he's been back to town since, but if I had to pick a year for my Baryshnikov anecdote it would be in the late 80s. He looked like he did in the movie "White Nights". In fact, that was one of the few times I saw him perform even on film, doing a dance routine with Gregory Hines.

See, I'm not a ballet fan. My wife goes to all kinds of dance performances. I even bought her a ticket one time to see the big star, Rudolph Nureyev. One thing about the Russkies - they sure have the great names. Whether you're a famous Russian author or just another comrade, you usually have a name that reeks of greatness. In fact, the first stupid sounding Russian name I ever heard was Putin. No wonder he's so bitter.

So my wife goes to everything from the Jefferson Dancers on up to the traveling national acts. I suppose I should go with her, at least one time, but life is too short to do everything. In return, she excuses herself from some - though not all - of the demented concerts I attend. I doubt very much if she made it to Baryshnikov though. Some of these things are really pricey. So there's another reason I don't go, besides a general lack of interest.

That's why I'm not sure if the other ballet troupe I waited on up on the 3rd floor of the Portland Hilton was from the Bolshoi Ballet. I remember they were Russian and I think so, but I'm not sure. At any rate, what impressed me most was the staggering level of prima donna attitude. This was a small banquet room with only 4 or 5 round tables of 10 - in short it was just for the dancers and touring personnel. Yet, even in this informal atmosphere, when one of the stars entered the room, everyone else applauded. I remember they were from Russia so, let's just leave it that if the Bolshoi Ballet has ever performed in Portland, then I waited on them. I do remember imagining a dancer would try to defect. They looked quite unhappy.

Not Baryshnikov - or Misha as we personal buddies call him. The reason I picked the above picture was that it captures how he was the entire function, except for one brief moment. This banquet was downstairs next to the Grand Ballroom. It was right after a performance and the patrons got to attend a fancy reception, while the ballet troupe had dinner in a small room nearby.

There was a L-shaped turn in the hallway and we were at the other end. The fans weren't allowed to come too far around the corner, but I'll never forget the woman who was waiting there. She was absolutely gorgeous and she was just trembling with passion. She asked me if Baryshnikov was in the small room down the hall, and I said, "Yes, the dancers are having dinner, and he's there." She literally moaned. I mean this woman was revved up. She said, "I'll do anything to meet him." I said, "I'm sorry, but lots of people want to - I can't."

Walking back down the hall, I remember thinking that Baryshnikov had it made and then some. I mean, I knew he had dated Jessica Lange but I suddenly realized the level of reaction he was getting from the woman in the hall. It was extreme. I imagined having beautiful women around the world begging for the honor of throwing themselves at you. That was the burden this poor bastard had to live with, day after day.

In fact, even one of our own waitresses popped through the door and took a flash picture of him during dinner, and that was so uncool. Part of what the guests are paying for is a break from it all, and if the waiters don't stay in character, the situation becomes...well, it's just not how it's supposed to be. I was repulsed by this waitress's lack of professionalism.

What I did do was eavesdrop. I always tried to eavesdrop on the big-shots just for my own education and thrill. You know what Baryshnikov and the dancers talked about all through dinner? Dancing. They were complete artists, and they'd be talking about individuals, critiquing them. I remember Baryshinikov saying in his Russian accent, "Her moves are so plastic." This impressed me. First, they had the post-performance buzz so they were high on that. Plus, they were drinking Heinikens and some were even smoking cigarettes. That part was a little surprising, but to hear them talk passionately about dance throughout dinner was beautiful. These were true artists. That's the image I have: Baryshnikov sitting with some gorgeous ballerinas talking about dance.
When dinner ended, he wanted to leave discreetly, behind the scenes. The screaming fans down the hall, were still at it when we came out of the room. I imagine it got quite old, even counting the amazing fox who was panting away with them: "Another beautiful woman in love with me? Take a number."

So I showed him through the back hall. By the way, I mentioned the fear of the President slipping in an earlier post. I should elaborate. Back halls are notoriously slippery because of falling trays and splashing water, coffee, and wine. Worst of all was vinaigrette salad dressing. We literally kept a towell on the ground every 20 feet or so, just in case something spilled. The worst fall I ever took at the hotel was on grease by the pot-washing area and the first thing that hit was the back of my head, my shoulders and back. I ended up in a cab to emergency. The worst fall by a waiter featured a shattered knee cap. We lifted the leg of his pants and it looked like the inner joint of an elbow - there was no kneecap left. I just told the waiter to stay still, and don't look at it. I covered it with a napkin. The waiter was out for months, and limped slightly from then on.

So when I talk about being worried that a President or someone would slip in the back hall, it was completely real. And so that night, I warned the famous dancer to be very careful about slipping. I even said, "The last thing I need is for Mikhail Baryshinkov to hurt himself in our back hall." At these words, Baryshnikov, who was just in a great mood almost throughout, started kidding around. He started pretending he was falling. Of course, everything looked like a fancy ballet move - it was impossible for him to make a move without looking like some kind of statue, but he would shoot one leg forward and pretend to be falling backward. It was quite remarkable, and scary.

He was a total scamp. When we walked by a garbage dumpster he pretended he was eating from it, and then he would go back to pretending he was falling down. I mean, I knew he was kidding but I have seen many times when screwing around leads to an accident, so I was amused but I wished he would stop. The guy was giggling with joy throughout and was actually a lot of fun.

By the time the two of us got to the elevators, his manager was with us. This was when Barishnikov showed a little temper. The manager showed him the program which featured a painting of the dancer on the cover. It didn't look right - sort of like those old paintings of horses before we had cameras and could tell what their legs looked like when they run. Baryshnikov was displeased. He said to his manager, "Now this is the kind of thing you should be aware of. Look at this." His voice was full of disdain.

Almost as fast, his good mood returned. We stopped on the lobby level and some room service waiters were near the service elevator. As the doors closed, and the elevator rose up, Baryshinokov pretended to shout down to the waiters below, "I'll take 1000 pizzas." At this, both he and the manager giggled like they were having the time of their lives.

I said good-bye to my new Russian friend, and went back to the party. Downstairs the beautiful woman realized her love interest had gone. She looked crushed. It dawned on me that there was a very good chance Mikhail Baryshnikov was having a better life than I was.


At 2:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 2:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, as one of the female fans, I totally envy you! lovely story - very personal and charming. thanks.


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