Mikhail Baryshnikov sashays into the children's book field with Because (Atheneum/Seo), illustrated by longtime friend Vladimir Radunsky. Bookshelf caught up with the dancer recently at his New York studio.
What made you decide to write a children's book now?
Vladimir and I are good friends. My children grew up on his books. At some point, I was chatting with him. Our daughters are pretty much the same age, and we were talking about arts education, talking generally about how he started to paint, how I started to dance. How someone becomes an artist can happen in many mysterious ways, but it can also be that someone simply introduces you to something and it sticks.
Who was the person that introduced you to dance?
My mother took me to the theater, and to opera, and to dance, and the dance stuck. Sometimes, it is a teacher, or sometimes it is an eccentric relative like the grandmother in the book. What's important is for somebody to introduce you to something that you can fall in love with, the thing that will be your destiny. We live in a young country, and there is a very different approach to arts education here.
Explain what you mean by that.
Well, it's just a different social system. There's a lack of government support here. In the older countries, in Italy or Spain or France or England, the money spent on cultural projects is enormous. Here, you may go all the way through school and never meet the arts.
So the idea sprang from a conversation between you and Vladimir about arts education?
He approached me. In addition to his own books, he sometimes collaborates. He's worked with Joseph Brodsky and Bill Martin. He said, 'Why don't you write a book about a boy discovering dance?' Now, let's be honest here. My participation was really as cheerleader, because I cannot draw, and I cannot actually write either. So I was chief advisor to the text. I made sure that it was all from my point of view. Vladimir worked and I criticized.
Wow. Are you still friends?
Believe it or not, yes.
I have to admit I'm disappointed that the grandmother in the story is a figment of your and Vladimir's imagination. I wanted her to be real.
You have your wish. She looks suspiciously like Vladimir's wife. I think she's adorable.
Well, who were you more like as a child: the grandmother dancing her way through life, or the boy who is embarrassed at her behavior?
She is a little bit annoying at first, but then he is proud of her when she wins everybody over and takes them to this beautiful world. I know a lot of people like the grandmother, who cannot stop dancing. They cannot live without dance. To me, Mrs. Duncan (the grandmother) never danced professionally but took classes and had a dream she would wake up some Thursday and be a dancer. She has the cane like Fred Astaire. She poses like Martha Graham. She knows all these very famous images of dance.
Now that you mention Mrs. Duncan, I imagined you meant Isadora.
Yes, of course. There are a lot of inside jokes, like the dog named Pavlov. It's not just for kids. There's a lot of witty text, which is mostly Vladimir with little suggestions from me.
I think you're being overly modest.
No, I'm telling the truth.