“I do not try to dance better than everyone else. I only try to dance better than myself.” — Mikhail Baryshnikov

By Greg Joseph

(Published March 1986.)

SEVEN HOURS before his first performance ever in San Diego, Mikhail Baryshnikov — he who has swept critics, moviegoers and womankind aloft in a single graceful swipe — stood expectantly in the center of the Civic Theater stage.

Then, this man they call the greatest dancer of his generation swatted his hands together twice.

It was time, to the millisecond, for the start of the brush-up rehearsal for the American Ballet Theater’s production of “Giselle.”

Baryshnikov — the Kirov Ballet expatriate who has served as artistic director of the ABT since September 1980 — would perform the role of Count Albrecht in the company’s opening production of the work that night under the sponsorship of the San Diego Arts Foundation and the San Diego Symphony.

It was his only onstage appearance here — Kevin McKenzie is scheduled to appear as Albrecht in tonight’s production, while McKenzie and others will dance the ABT’s “Don Quixote” tomorrow and Saturday.

Single performance or no, Baryshnikov seeks — indeed, will accept nothing less than — perfection.

At his first clap. the stage fell silent.

By the second, absolute quiet filled the house, which was empty except for scattered technicians and a visitor from the press.

Only minutes before, a lighting technician in a San Francisco Giants baseball cap had been standing on the apron of the stage carrying a clipboard and hollering to his assistant at the back of the house, a statuesque woman in a gray sweatsuit had squatted to his left clapping her ballet slippers together, and four determined members of the corps de ballet practiced a pas de quatre upstage.

Misha himself — the nickname attached to Baryshnikov — had casually alternated between testing his right knee (the object of recent laser surgery) and dispensing instructions to his assistants.

Now technicians became invisible.

Dancers glided swan-like into place.

Baryshnikov positioned himself just above the orchestra pit, arms folded and right hand to the chin, back to the audience, as the onstage lights rose to match performance level.

The house was hushed.

Baryshnikov nodded, nearly imperceptibly. The pianist began. Then the dancers.

The entire production was being performed. For Baryshnikov, and Baryshnikov alone.

During the rehearsal, he favored no one. He will not, it is said, tolerate outsized egos among his charges.

He did, however, spend the most time individually with Alessandra Ferri, the riveting 22-year-old alumna of London’s Royal Ballet who joined the ABT last summer and would dance opposite him that night in the title role of “Giselle.” This also would be her first and only San Diego appearance.

Having the two together on a local stage is considered nothing short of a coup. Ferri and Baryshnikov have been hailed as ballet’s great new couple.

At one point during a break, she stopped him and circled her arms coquettishly around his neck and whispered.

The rehearsal would end nine minutes early, as though Baryshnikov the dancer had won a minor concession from Baryshnikov the artistic director.

If there is tension between him and his supporting cast over stern demands, as has been suggested, such was not readily apparent now.

There was Baryshnikov tossing flowers back and forth playfully with another dancer and muttering, “Go away”; Baryshnikov impulsively seizing a young female dancer’s face in his hands as he brushed offstage; Baryshnikov impishly leaning his head to match the angle of dancers as they slid to the ground, commenting to an assistant, “It takes a lo-o-o-o-o-o-g time.”

Baryshnikov’s charismatic influence — call it Eastern European intensity wrapped in Western charm — is palpable amid backstage operations as well.

During and after the rehearsal, Dan Butt, the ABT’s production manager for the last 11 years, sat making telephone calls in the stage manager’s niche offstage. He is the man responsible for transporting the company from city to city.

“Baryshnikov rightly wants things to be correct and he is constantly trying to improve the show,” Butt, a precise man in an open-collar dress shirt, carefully explained.

“He doesn’t carry grudges. If he doesn’t like something, he tells you. And when it’s done, its done.”

Butt, who said he likes to prepare for a tour as much as two years in advance, described the ABT as a “traveling city — if we need something, we carry it.”

Consider: There are 86 dancers in the ABT for the 1985–86 season, and the company travels with 45 full-time staff members; the company buys 1,500 airplane tickets during its national tour; occupies from 70 to 80 hotel rooms in each city, and uses 15 moving vans to transport 50 tons of sets and costumes (between 900 and 1,000 costumes are needed this year alone).

The ABT, the only major American ballet company to annually tour in the United State, calls the Metropolitan Opera House in New York its home. It also has been decreed the official company of the John F. Kennedy Center for the performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

The ABT, which came to San Diego from Los Angeles — its first stop here in eight years — next heads to the JFK Center for a three-week run, and after a 10-day hiatus, goes back to New York.

Butt recalled a logistical nightmare that occurred on the present tour.

“In the run from Chicago to San Francisco,” he said, “the trucks carrying all our daily supplies were cut off because of all the rain and mudslides. I’m talking about our entire lighting system. Makeup. And silly little things like shoe spray.

“Once I learned that the trucks weren’t coming, I alerted San Francisco, called one or two people and made arrangements with the San Francisco Ballet to borrow some of their things. We made it on.”

Mae Ishimoto remembered a different tour nightmare, this one the type reserved for the head wardrobe mistress, which she has been for 13 years with the ABT.

“It was where Miss Ferri made an entrance for ‘Giselle’ during a performance in Los Angeles,” Ishimoto recounted. “Her skirt caught and tore on her knee as she came out on stage and she had two yards of material trailing behind her.

“She tried to rip it off herself and it got worse. Her solution was to hold it in her hand and keep moving. My heart stopped. When she came offstage, we smoothed it out and she was able to finish.”

As she spoke, Baryshnikov emerged from a nearby dressing room, knapsack in hand.

He walked quickly through the glut of humanity, apparently wishing to speak to no one. Ihsimoto’s eyes widened and she became silent. For the moment, she was another mesmerized fan as she watched him leave.

Upstairs a few minutes later, Ishimoto’s counterpart, wardrobe master Bob Holloway, told of having shrunken costumes returned from the cleaners the day of the performance several years ago in Miami.

“The costumes looked like white sweatshirts,” he said, “so we went out in the town looking for a white sweatshirts. It was an adventure, but we made it. We had an afternoon to do it all in.”

Holloway, a ballet dancer for 10 years before joining the ABT as wardrobe master in 1965, said the costume changes for “Giselle” and “Don Quixote” are nothing compared to those for “Romeo and Juliet.”

“Those are the quickest,” he said. “It seems like we’ve got everybody including the ushers there helping change. I mean it’s something.”

Downstairs in a small dressing room sat Leopold Allen, an eight-year ABT veteran who is in charge of wigs and makeup for the company. His repertoire includes 300 wigs and hairpieces, and approximately $5,000 worth of makeup, all of which travels with him on tour.

He too remembered the San Francisco performance given after the company’s supplies were interrupted en route from Chicago.

“It was a nightmare kind of day,” he said. “It took me four hours going all over San Francisco to find what I wanted. Still, everyone came out with different complexions in that production, things were just a little off, but no one noticed.

A moment later, just outside the backstage door, an elderly man approached a spokeswoman for the dance company and implored her to allow him to personally deliver some pictures to the ballet stars. She gently refused.

“It’s Misha,” she said. “Misha has that effect on people wherever he goes.”

Journalist, film biographer, actor, former critic (TCA), SAG, Emmy, Film & Media Coalition brds. Governor’s Arts Award nom. Turner Classic Movies #TCM25 winner.