My Dad is Baryshnikov

Well, not really. That’s just the title of a Russian movie about a boy who is studying ballet in the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow.

“Moy papa Baryshnikov” (2011), directed and written by Dmitry Povolotsky, is perhaps not too widely circulated outside of Russia and outside of the ballet circle. But for those of us balletomanes, this film is quite a gem. I enjoyed it not only for the ballet-oriented subject matter but also the clever treatment of the topic of a teenager’s coming of age and of the modern Soviet history of Perestroika.

The boy, Borya Fishkin, is played by Dmitry Vyskubenko (currently 16 years old), who in real life does study at the Bolshoi and is doing quite well—unlike in the film, where he plays an utterly clumsy and undisciplined ballet student who is always at the brink of being kicked out of the school.

In the beginning of the movie, Borya can hardly execute any proper positions and steps at all, and was constantly scolded by the teacher. The other classmates look down on him, except for one red-haired girl who seems to care about him. But his eyes are on the most beautiful and talented girl in the class.

While Borya is deeply in love with ballet, he is also very enthusiastic about all things from the West. Having some shady friends on his side, he regularly engages in black-market trading activities—selling Soviet souvenirs to American tourists at the Red Square in exchange for the American dollar, a banana or a pair of Levi’s jeans.

One day, his mother gives him an “illegal” tape containing footage of Mikhail Baryshnikov dancing on stage in America. Borya is spellbound. “He is God!” he proclaims. By coincidence, his friend sees that tape and comments very lightheartedly that Borya looks like Baryshnikov. This gives him the idea that Baryshnikov could be his father. His defection to the West must have been the reason why Borya ends up without a father! Bingo!

This “realization” changes Borya’s entire outlook. He starts to practice turning and bowing by watching the video tape over and over again. At school, his pirouette skills impresses the teacher and the classmates. He has suddenly become the center of gossips. Is he really the son of Baryshnikov?

The intrigue deepens while many opportunities open up to Borya, including the beautiful girl’s attention for him and a chance for him to take the lead role in an important school performance.

However, the story takes another turn from then on. I probably should not spoil the ending.

The actor who plays Borya is very convincing. Not only does he play a likable character, the feigned clumsiness in dancing must have been quite a feat for a serious dance student. All the skills must be unlearned and ugliness shown instead.

I also enjoyed seeing the portrayal of the Soviet society at the cusp of the breakdown of Socialism. I compare that to China under the Mao era, of which my parents have told many stories. It seems that there were still many more “luxuries” in the Soviet Union than in China, despite the prevalent lack of material comfort. What was common between the two societies was the rarity of meat and the need to line up for a long time in front of a shop for simple grocery items.

As for the coming-of-age theme, I really like the moment of epiphany when Borya “realizes” his status as the son of an international superstar, someone who is utterly different—which is what he strives for in a society where sameness is encouraged and individuality suppressed.

Because of the change in his belief system, his self-esteem suddenly goes through the roof and his performance shoots up miraculously! Of course, it is an exaggeration, a literary device in a fictional work. Still, isn’t true that when we climb out of the boundaries of the box we put ourselves in and believe in something larger, higher and more fabulous, “miracles” can indeed happen? And this doesn’t just apply to dancing. It applies to every area of our lives. It’s about living our fullest potential.

If it helps, find a role model, an archetype or a hero with whom you identify.

Feel the power of your own potential.

Allow the miracle in your life to unfold.

A recent video of Dmitry Vyskubenko practicing a variation in Don Quixote.

Related links:

The movie with Chinese subtitle available here.

What is the Mikhail Baryshnikov doing these days? Check out this video:
Citizen of Humanity