While photographing the BBC’s filming of Twyla Tharp’s “The Catherine Wheel” I met Rhoda Grauer. Rhoda was the executive director of the project and as I found out later, the director of media development for the American Ballet Theatre. I spent a week shooting this amazing production and at the end Rhoda asked me if I was interested in shooting for ABT. I was kind of stunned and of course I said yes.
A few months later I get a call from Rhoda telling me I’m doing Baryshnikov’s portrait. My first job for ABT and I’m shooting Misha. The picture would be Misha’s official portrait as the new artistic director for ABT.
I went into ABT for a meeting with Alan Olshan, the assistant development director. We discussed the upcoming shoot with Misha. I would set up my lights and background in one of the dance studios with an hour to get into the studio and set up and then another 30 minutes with Misha to get the portrait. The total fee for the shoot would be $100. One hundred dollars! I made more than that as a photographer’s assistant. I had planned on paying my assistant $100. Then there was the cost of taxis, film, processing, and prints. This was ABT! Baryshnikov! Were they kidding? That indeed was the rate and I said no. One has to eat. I wouldn’t work for that small amount of money.
In everyone’s life there are many forks in the road and I had just come to one. I decided to take a stand against abusive business practices. I really wanted to shoot with Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. Their choreography was so much more interesting. Who cared about ABT anyway! But something in my head kept telling me this was a shoot I needed to do no matter what. So I went back to the fork in the road and took the other direction. I called Alan and said I’d do the job if he paid all of my expenses. I’d make nothing but at least I wouldn’t lose money. Alan agreed.
So we get to ABT with all of my lights and typical photographic garbage and begin to set up for the shoot. I have to admit I’m a little nervous. That’s a rarity in my life. But this is Baryshnikov. I did see him dance a few times with City Ballet but more important, this was the star of The Turning Point. I loved that movie. I saw it well before I ever considered photographing dance but was so impressed. Only The Red Shoes is better.
So I’m testing my lights and doing polaroids of my assistant and we are on schedule. My light is almost perfect and I still have 5 minutes before Misha arrives. I’m finally relaxed. Then in walks some person from the press department. Misha is on his way and I have 5 minutes to do the shoot. No apologies. No suggestions. No help. Nice!
Misha soon follows wearing a suit and sporting a fresh haircut more appropriate for a little boy than an executive and ballet star. I ask Misha to have a seat and we begin. I’m shooting with my Hasselblad. Large negatives. Very commercial. Perfect for an executive’s portrait. Misha is so uncomfortable I feel like I’m shooting an 8th grade graduation portrait. I whip off a few rolls of film and I’m not getting it. He’s giving me nothing. I can tell he hates this. I ask Misha to take off his jacket. Maybe that will help. The pictures get a little better but basically they’re still terrible.
I’m running out of time. I’m focused and my brain is going a mile a minute but I can’t make a connection with Misha. I stop the shoot. I pick up my Nikon filled with the high speed super grainy film I only use for personal portraits. I can’t believe what I’m about to say. I tell Misha he’s sitting there looking tired and terribly uncomfortable and I need him to relax for only a minute. I ask him to remove his tie and I start shooting again. Misha is calm for the first time during the shoot. He’s perfect. All my concentration is on the image I see through the camera. Each frame is better than the next. 20 pictures. I’ve got it. I tell Misha we’re finished and he leaves to go about his business.
Much to my surprise, ABT picks the personal shot. My favorite image. It’s the start of a 10 year relationship with Baryshnikov’s ABT.
Mikhail Barshnikov photographed on December 15, 1982