Thursday, August 07, 2003

It's been a long time since I've wanted to walk into a Hollywood producer's office, thrust my fists in the air and say, "YES!"

If I had such a chance to walk into a producers meeting for Sex and the City, that's exactly what I would do. "YES. Thank you! Thank you for being brilliant. And DIFFERENT."

I'm talking about casting Mikhail Baryshnikov as a soon to be love interest for Carrie. (Sarah Jessica Parker). Though I haven't been a religious watcher of the show, I'm excited about this for a lot of reasons.

One, it's taking a ballsy risk, and two it's bringing someone back into the public eye that I think has been missing for too long. Yes, he's been performing, but coccooned in his world of modern dance appearances which in the big picture is a very small pond.

Three, because the world needs Baryshnikov. Especially the younger crowd who are used to celebrities being made overnight and think that Brittany Spears qualifies as a good dancer. It's important to introduce to them this extraordinary talent who not only worked years to perfect his craft, but defected from his country so he could have freedom of artistic expression. Though he won't be showing off his dancing talent in the show, it will pique curiosity from those who have not heard of him before, or who have but because he is a performing artist, thought him a story that isn't of interest to them. Now, people will ask who he is, and possibly be moved to explore watching videos of when he was at his peak or delve into his story, which is a fascinating one. It will remind them that it wasn't so long ago that times were different, and the extents that someone will go to fully achieve their artistic, or any potential. Not to mention, to defeat the obstacles that attempt to thwart them no matter how impossible that seems.

Lastly, I worked for three years at American Ballet Theatre while Baryshnikov was artistic director. It is a time that I will treasure for the rest of my life, seeing the world of dance so up close and intimately and being allowed to roam freely within that world. I was also one of the first at the company to learn that Baryshnikov would resign from the position, but that is another story.

I was introduced to Baryshnikov early in life by the yearly showings of "The Nutcracker" or when my mom and I would fight over the television over my wanting to watch CHiPs and her wanting to watch a PBS special called Baryshnikov on Broadway. "Isn't he cute?" she say, and I'd recoil, "NO!" And I meant it. I'd sulk and wait for the commercials so we could switch to Ponch and Jon in their tight cop pants fighting crime via motorcycle on the California Highways. Now that was cute.

Several years later, as a teenager with maturing hormones and tastes, I saw a preview at a theater for the movie White Nights. Misha jumped across the screen and something stirred in my belly. I crossed my legs and leaned back as I concentrated on the screen. This was no boy, it was a man. But an expressive boyish man who had incredible control over his body. "Oh yeah," I thought. "Forgot about this guy."

Right: Misha in the movie White Nights. Photo courtesy of "Portrait of a Film." Photo by Terry O'Neill.

When I saw the movie, I was hooked. He had force, sexuality, and maturity behind his image, and that just curled my little teenage toes. I spent years pining over Misha, had posters on my walls and wore out the Public Library's VHS copies of his performances. The need to get out of Kansas to New York became even more urgent. I wanted to experience that world, those people, and that man. Luckily, my own artistic skills got me into Parsons School of Design in New York. Before I left, people in Kansas balked when I told them I wanted to be Baryshnikov's assistant at American Ballet Theatre in New York City. "Oh like you'd ever get to do that," they'd say.

But I did.

By the time I was nineteen, I was Misha's assistant at American Ballet Theatre.

I found my "in" during a summer job as a telemarketer for ABT's fundraising campaign. The office we used was uptown and being leased to us as a donation from a major company. It was fancy and plush, but it was nowhere near the action in the downtown studios. It was at that job that I learned about the volunteer program at ABT and applied. Through volunteering, I would get to be on site at the company studios which put me at Misha ground zero. From there, I was hired to work part-time in the development office.

Left: Misha during the time I was at American Ballet Theatre. Photo by Annie Leibowitz.

The first time I saw Misha at ABT was him walking toward me in the hall with shorts on and very white muscular legs. I was shy and averted his glance, but tried to be seen by him as much as possible when I was there. Not obnoxiously lingering, but just present. I had such a crush on him, and had a fantasy that Misha would see me and say, "come work for ME." It was silly, but that's exactly what happened.

It all started with a squeeze on the arm.

One day at work, I was pinched on my arm from behind, and thinking it was another coworker with whom I had a flirtatious relationship, almost punched the person behind me playfully. I balled my fist, then held it when I saw my boss's expression stiffen. I turned around, and there was Misha. Brilliant blue eyes, talking fast to me, pausing between every couple of words, "Can you... come get me... if the phone rings... for me?"
"Sure," I said, relaxing my fist, and he smiled widely. So did I.
"Thank you!" he said, and darted off down the hall to rehearsal.
My boss stood there stunned, then said, "you better stay here then," and indicated the desk by the artistic office.
"Yeah," I said, my stomach doing flip flops inside, "I guess so."

And there it was. I had made it. That little exchange led to me being the liason between Misha's life at ABT and the world. And Misha's world was big. I phoned him at his hotel in Rome to tell him that he'd been nominated for an Emmy. He called me from Valentino's yacht in the Mediterranian to catch up on messages. "How are you, Anne?" He would say over static sounding very happy to be on vacation. "Thank you Anne!" He'd say when we were finished talking.

Though I was harboring a severe crush on the man, I was always respectful of his privacy. I stayed within my boundaries to what the job was, and didn't cross the line. There was no groupie behavior on my part, no snooping or souvenir collecting. I was just thrilled to be a part of everything.

And then the time came when he made a pass at me. He had been trying to get closer to me all week, coming up from behind, rubbing me on the arm and greeting me. On that day, I was on the phone inquiring to a store about some bookshelves I'd ordered and he came out of his office. He stood there looking at me and I at him. We were in a different world; the woman on the other line from me couldn't have guessed what was happening to her customer at that moment and why I was taking a few seconds to answer her questions. He moved closer, brushed against my leg and touched my shoulder. I was sitting, he was standing, and both of us were quiet. I had finished my conversation and hung up the phone. My heart was a pounding drum in my head. I was sure he could hear it. I felt myself blush. I was sure he could see it. I wanted to appear mature and seasoned, and I was blowing it.

I had fantasized endlessly about this moment. I was trembling; he was calm as he stared into my eyes, inches away and getting closer. The sound around me silenced, my breathing tightened in my throat. He was now standing over me, and touched my arm, neck. "Go for it!" A voice screamed in my head, "put your hand...there!"

But I turned away.

At nineteen, he was too much man for me. And though he looked young and had the body of a teenager, he was more than twice my age. I was inexperienced; he was a legend for his conquests. And, he scared the shit out of me.

For years I chastised myself for "failing" in that moment, and that my Kansas upbringing surrounded by uncultured dopey boys had failed to prepare me for it. But eventually, I came to an understanding that I was simply protecting myself from what would have been an emotionally devastating experience for a very impressionable, sensitive, and naive young woman. I had become familiar with his womanizing ways, and though in fantasy it was ok, the reality felt so much different, and scary. Some nineteen-year-olds could have handled it. I wasn't one of them. In that regard, I triumphed in that moment and showed strength way beyond my years.

So why am I thrilled about his appearance on the show? I don't know fully, but I am. It brings back those memories of being impressionable and excited about something. Being introduced to a world that is so much bigger than you are, yet not getting lost in it. And having the strength to stand out in your unique way and realize how far you want to go. There is no way that you emerge from an experience like that the same person that you were when you entered.

I certainly didn't.

Perhaps, because having him back in the limelight, especially in this capacity, brings some of me back as well. It puts me back in touch with that adventurous, go for it personality who set an impossible, no ridiculous goal and achieved it. The romantic. The girl that believed in dreams coming true, even if they don't turn out to be what you thought. Because it is the belief in those dreams, not the achievement of them that is the most important. Success is merely the end result of never ceasing to believe.

When I lived in Los Angeles, Shannon, his sister and I went to see Baryshnikov dance at the Wiltern Theatre. It was the first time that I'd seen him in person since he walked off the stage at the Met after announcing his intentions to resign as artistic director. No one knew of my history, and I liked it that way. I liked seeing Misha not through the eyes of a star struck teenager who wanted to be swept off her feet and rescued, but as an adult who had her own life and successes. And presence. And someone who was content to appreciate his artistry from afar.

And I decided, that I like both him and me much better on those terms.

No comments: