Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
He awoke on June 30, 1974, still feeling the effects of a vodka-fuelled celebration the night before, at an isolated Caledon Hills farmhouse owned by someone he hadn’t met until yesterday.
By now the KGB would be tearing apart his life in Leningrad, interrogating friends. Through Canadian officials, the Soviet embassy in Ottawa had offered to allow their young star to return without punishment and pressed for a face-to-face meeting to discuss details. He was now a citizen with no nation, while James Peterson, lawyer and future cabinet minister, worked to secure political asylum protection from the Canadian government. Most of the others at the farmhouse were old friends who’d rushed to the city to assist in his escape, hastily recruiting several Torontonians to join in the plot.
But the claustophobia of seclusion in such close quarters was taking its toll. He was irritable, and weighed down by the fear of being discovered by the authorities or the press. Dark circles under his eyes betrayed him, evidence of insomnia and nightmares. He found some solace in practicing, using wrought-iron rods embedded in the flagstone of the farmhouse as his barre for his stretches and positions, then escaping the house to swim, fish, or walk in the woods.
Most of all he tried to look forward, planning what companies and partners he might dance with in the near future. Using Toronto as the backdrop to this Cold War drama, the emerging superstar of the Russian ballet, Mikhail Baryshnikov, had walked away from his comrades. And now his horizons seemed boundless.
Baryshnikov’s defection was not planned in advance. It was mostly improvised once opportunity presented itself. “My decision to stay in the West was never made in the former Soviet Union,” he told John Fraser of the National Post in a rare interview on June 5, 1999. “As I was preparing to leave on the trip to Canada in 1974 I honestly thought I would be coming back to my country. You have to understand my circumstances. If I had wanted to leave home permanently, if it had been something that was pushing at my mind so strongly I couldn’t resist it, then there were several opportunities before this trip.”
When the Bolshoi Ballet was double-booked for June 1974, with a planned tour to Canada as well as performances in England, Baryshnikov was added to the lineup for the former set of shows, while most of the Bolshoi’s best-known dancers went to London. Baryshnikov and Irina Kolpakova, a fellow star at the renowned Kirov Ballet, were invited in order to add interest to the troupe of past-their-peak and second-string dancers being sent to Canada.
The cross-Canada tour was to include stops in Ottawa and Montreal, then a week-long engagement at Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre (now Sony Centre), before heading west to Vancouver. Dance fans from across North America travelled to Canada to catch their first glimpse of the young and talented Baryshnikov.
The impressions of one audience member at a Bolshoi performance in Montreal were quoted in Gennady Smakov’s Baryshnikov: From Russia to the West (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1981). She recalled:
His head and hands are large, and his face—pale, peaked features and distant eyes—is the face of Petrouchka…Baryshnikov is able to perform unparalleled spectacular feats as an extension of classical rather than character or acrobatic dancing…He gets into a step sequence more quickly, complicates it more variously, and prolongs it more extravagantly than any dancer I’ve ever seen. And he finishes when he wants to, not when he has to. Perhaps his greatest gift is his sense of fantasy in classical gesture. He pursues the extremes of its logic so that every step takes on an unforeseen dimension. His grande pirouette is a rhapsody of swelling volume and displaced weight.
Veronica Tennant, then a rising star with the National Ballet of Canada, was in attendance at a show in Toronto. In a segment broadcast on CBC’s The National Magazine on June 29, 1999, she cheered: “He was even more spectacular than you could have possibly have imagined. The house went crazy. When he took off and jumped, it was literally like a cannon shot and the entire audience just gasped when he took off in his jumps.” While the sub-par Bolshoi troupe as a whole was being savaged in the critical press, Baryshnikov was being hailed as the successor to the greatest of Russian dancers, Vaslav Nijinsky and Rudolf Nureyev.
Globe and Mail, June 8, 1974.
Baryshnikov had been groomed for dancing since his childhood in Riga, Latvia. In 1964, he was recruited as a sixteen-year-old to study at the acclaimed Vaganova Ballet Academy. Three years later, he joined Leningrad’s esteemed Kirov Ballet. He lived the sheltered, comfortable life of a star in the Soviet Union. He had a spacious apartment, and received the highest salary of the dancers at the Kirov company. He enjoyed relative freedom from the deprivations experienced in the rest of Soviet society.
Seeking to remain politically neutral, he’d always avoided becoming a member of the Communist Party. But prior to the 1974 tour, he’d come under increasing pressure, as a prominent personage, to do his duty. He told Fraser: “I knew the government was beginning to feel that it was time to do my duty: to marry my live-in girlfriend, to join the Party, to sign on to the system. Once you rose to a certain height professionally, they always came for you.” The Kirov Ballet, like all Soviet institutions, was infiltrated by both official KGB agents and informants—and they made no secret of their surveillance of him. After his return from a dance tour to London in 1972, KGB officers informed him that they had a record of everything he’d done and everyone he’d seen abroad—including his romantic liaison with an American girl.
“It was during this period,” the dancer told Fraser, “that I really began to take stock of my life and realize how uneasy I was feeling most of the time.”
More than political concerns, Baryshnikov’s strongest motivation for defecting was his artistic aspiration. The Kirov Ballet was especially conservative in an already culturally conservative milieu, performing mostly classical works. Baryshnikov found it constraining because he wanted to explore more experimental, contemporary dance, and to push his own abilities further. And, as Barbara Aria puts it in Misha (St. Martin’s Press, 1989), Baryshnikov “couldn’t choose his own roles or partners, he couldn’t choose choreographers, he had no choice in where, or when, or what he danced.”
Nevertheless, few anticipated he would defect during the 1974 tour.
John Fraser, then a young reporter and dance critic for the Globe and Mail, attended the Bolshoi’s opening night performance at the O’Keefe Centre on the evening of Monday, June 24, 1974. He’d just returned to his office to compose his review of the show—scathing save for a heady measure of praise for Baryshnikov—when he noticed a message marked “Urgent” sitting on his typewriter.
The telephone message was from Trish Barnes, then-wife of New York Times critic Clive Barnes. Intrigued, Fraser called her back. As Fraser recounted in Private View (Bantam Books, 1988), Barnes asked Fraser to do her a favour. “You have to get a message through to him tonight or tomorrow,” he said, referring to Baryshnikov. “It’s absolutely crucial. I tried to do it in Montreal, but the situation was impossible. Use your ingenuity and see what you can do.” She gave him a telephone number to relay to the Russian, with the message that friends wanted to speak with him.
Fraser probed for clarifying information, but Barnes remained vague. She repeated: “He has three very close friends here who simply have to make contact with him. Remember these names: Dina, Tina, and Sasha. Have you got them? Dina, Tina, and Sasha.”
Fraser hastily typed his review to meet his deadline and rushed back to the O’Keefe Centre, where he knew an opening night gala was being held. He found Baryshnikov, bored and disinterested in all around him, sitting at the head table. The dancer was joined by the artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, Celia Franca, the Party apparatchiks overseeing the Bolshoi tour, Alexander Lapauri and his wife Raissa Struchkova, as well as KGB agents acting under the guise of being translators, and representatives of the company sponsoring the event. Fraser’s initial attempt to make contact with Baryshnikov by striking a conservation with Franca resulted in his being ushered to his rightful place—to a table-setting on the other side of the room.
As the gala wore on, guests began hopping from table to table to mingle. Finding Baryshnikov alone, Fraser stepped over and delivered his message. He spoke in broken French because he knew no Russian and the dancer could speak no English. Baryshnikov was elated at hearing his friends’ names, but Fraser’s intrigue quickly descended into farce.
Perhaps inspired by a cheap spy novel, Fraser had written the telephone number on a tiny scrap of sticky paper and hidden it beneath his signet ring. The intent was that when the two shook hands, the number would stick to the dancer’s palm. In reality, the scrap of paper had gotten tangled around the ring, and Fraser had to discreetly pry it off—while Baryshnikov started laughing aloud. The dancer retrieved a notebook from his pocket and, after Fraser borrowed a pen from a nearby table, recorded the number. He finished the task just as Lapauri and Franca were returned to the table.
Baryshnikov found an opportunity to call the number, and his friends rushed to Toronto. Alexander Minz (nicknamed Sasha), who was a former Kirov character dancer, and dance photographer Dina Makarova arrived that week from New York. And Christina Berlin, Baryshnikov’s romantic liaison on his 1972 tour, flew from London. These friends—along with a hastily convened network of local acquaintances like Peterson and Tim Stewart, who owned the farmhouse—set the wheels in motion for the dancer’s defection.
But a hesitant Baryshnikov wavered; he was nervous about whether he would succeed, or even find work, in the West. He was calmed when his friends made clear that they would employ their connections to the North American dance community to help him.
The final decision was made, and a plan was finalized. At 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 29—after the Bolshoi’s final Toronto show—Baryshnikov would slip quietly through the stage door to a car parked outside a nearby restaurant, and be whisked to a safe house.
That evening, however, the plan began unravelling almost immediately. A technical problem at the O’Keefe Centre delayed the start of the show. So when Baryshnikov emerged on-stage for his final number—the pas de deux from Don Quixote—he was already 15 minutes behind schedule. And by pouring all his energy and emotion into what he knew would be his last performance, Baryshnikov prompted another delay by earning curtain call after curtain call from the ecstatic crowd.
Rushing to his dressing room, he learned that the whole company was expected on a bus as soon as possible to attend a mandatory closing reception. Heading out the stage door in street clothes, just a few feet from the waiting bus, Baryshnikov stopped to sign autographs for a gathered crowd. Sensing that this was his final opportunity, he slipped into the crowd of autograph seekers. As voices from the bus called to him—”Misha, where are you going?”—he broke into a run, with fans streaming after him across the parking lot. Not knowing exactly where he was going, he sprinted into the street. With brakes squealing, a car nearly hit him.
By this time, the getaway car’s driver had grown worried because Baryshnikov was a half-hour late. He decided to head to the theatre to investigate whether the dancer might have changed his mind or been caught. As soon as he emerged from the parked car, the driver spotted a figure moving quickly through the night and hustled Baryshnikov into a passing taxi. They made their way to the farmhouse in Caledon Hills.
Globe and Mail, July 6, 1974.
On Monday, July 1, news of Baryshnikov’s defection was plastered on the front page of newspapers around the world. It was another day before Peterson, responsible for filing the star’s political asylum claim, secured a special permit allowing the dancer to remain in Canada for at least six months. The dancer’s first post-defection interview was granted to Fraser, an apparent reward for his part in the drama, and appeared on the front page of the Globe and Mail the following Saturday.
Back in the USSR, the KGB spread rumours that Baryshnikov had merely been allowed a short-term sojourn in the West. For years, officials would maintain his apartment as he had left it to perpetuate the ruse that Baryshnikov might return at any moment. But posters of the ballet star were quietly removed from the streets all over the Soviet Union. It wasn’t long before, Aria adds, “Baryshnikov’s name would be removed from books and his image on film and tape locked away.”
To find relief from the stress and mental fatigue of his situation, Baryshnikov threw himself into work. Having decided to stage his first post-defection performance in Canada, as Aria tells it, he signed on to join Veronica Tennant and the National Ballet of Canada in a performance of August Bournonville’s La Sylphide. It would be a personal and professional challenge because, with no knowledge of English, he had to communicate with his dance partner and others in French. Furthermore, the Danish choreography was an entirely different form from the Russian school of ballet. But, Tennant recalled for The National, he picked up the technique in a snap. “It was extraordinary,” she added, “to see someone learn and absorb so quickly. And then the words of English started to come within a matter of days.” Staged at Ontario Place, the production aired on Canadian television on August 14, 1974.
“But it was very clear that I wouldn’t stay in Canada,” Baryshnikov explained to Simon Houpt in the Globe and Mail of May 15, 1999. He gravitated to New York City where he first performed with the American Ballet Theatre, then the New York City Ballet, and later formed his own contemporary dance company, the White Oak Dance Project. Along the way, as his fame spread, he appeared in Broadway productions and Hollywood movies.
Baryshnikov has never considered himself courageous compared to those in his country who continued to live under the yoke of Soviet rule; he has remained notoriously shy about discussing his defection at length. Even in June 1999, when he reunited with some of the local players in his Cold War drama on the occasion of receiving an honorary degree from the University of Toronto, the only journalist to publish anything more than perfunctory quotes from the acclaimed dancer was John Fraser.
Other sources consulted: John Fraser, Globe and Mail (March 5, 2004); John Fraser, Saturday Night (October 1986); Martin Knelman, Toronto Star (September 25, 2010); Robert Lewis, Maclean’s (July 11, 1994); William Littler, Toronto Star (June 5, 1999); and Susan Walker, Toronto Star (June 16, 1999).