It was 38 years ago, give or take just a couple of days, when Mikhail Baryshnikov -- newest Soviet defector and instant global superstar -- made his American debut in "Giselle" at the Metropolitan Opera House. I remember staring at his face during the hysterical curtain calls. It was dead white, his eyes like charred holes in a mask that plastered morose nobility on the looks of a boy from an Andy Hardy movie.
What could he have been thinking, this compact 26-year-old whiz kid, who, weeks earlier had bolted the protected but stifling Leningrad Kirov Ballet to find headlines calling him the greatest Russian dancer to leave his country since Nijinsky in 1911? Mostly, in that instant, he just looked scared.
Whatever he was thinking then is less the point than what he has accomplished since. Where Peter Martins went from dancing to running the New York City Ballet and Rudolf Nureyev danced the same classics in his own sad shadow for far too long, Baryshnikov -- whom friends, fans and hopeful hangers-on call Misha -- has had a career trajectory as unpredictable and self-challenging as his legendary triple turns used to be.
As he told me in an interview before his first TV special in 1980, "Once you walk along a wire between two Eiffel towers, you have to find another wire. That's the only way life makes sense to me."
The high-wire image still works. For example, at the Lincoln Center Festival Wednesday through Aug. 5, he will star in "In Paris," a play -- not a dance -- about two Russian immigrants in Paris in the 1930s. Based on a 1940 May-December romantic short story by Ivan Bunin, the first Russian to win the Nobel Prize in literature, the production is staged by Dmitry Krymov, a painter and set designer who runs an experimental theater in Moscow.
Last month in Miami, Baryshnikov opened an exhibit of photographs he took of dancers -- everyone from his late buddy Merce Cunningham to bachata dancers in the Dominican Republic. And in February at the Hartford Stage in Connecticut, he will star in the world premiere of another drama, "Man in a Case," this one based on a Chekhov short story.
Meanwhile, on an increasingly hip stretch of West 37th Street in Hell's Kitchen thrives a different side of the restless artist altogether: Misha as impresario. Since 2005, he has been the hands-on artistic director of the Baryshnikov Arts Center, a sleek three-theater building that presents provocative work of all kinds, offers a home to such worthies as the Wooster Group and the St. Luke's Orchestra, and has a multidisciplinary residency program that supports up to 30 emerging and established artists a year.
Baryshnikov, who doesn't satisfy easily, recently said: "I'm very proud of this project. We do good work. I think New York needs a place like this."
He still dances occasionally, but wisely gave up ballet for modern and experimental dance in 1990. "People who saw me in the '70s and '80s in white tights dancing classical repertoire, they don't exist anymore," he told the Los Angeles Times before the opening of "In Paris" there last spring. "I'm in my 60s, which means they have to be my age or older. I have a new audience when I perform. They've never seen me in classical repertoire. In this sense, I'm not worried."
As soon as his feet hit our soil, he went zipping through Western culture with an insatiable kid-in-a-candy-store delight. His technique -- exquisite without a hint of look-at-me windup -- changed the rules for male dancers forever. He stretched the boundaries of classical technique into the radically different but all-American styles of Twyla Tharp and Cunningham. In 1978, he left the star pinnacle, $5,000-a-performance showcase at American Ballet Theatre to get $800 a week studying at George Balanchine's no-star New York City Ballet. From 1980 to 1990, he ran Ballet Theatre for $1 a year. He choreographed the classics.
He starred in movies, usually playing characters more or less like himself, and got an Oscar nomination for "The Turning Point" (1977). He talked to TV alien Alf. He made "Baryshnikov on Broadway" and "Baryshnikov in Hollywood" TV specials. For a big swath of America, he will always be the self-obsessed Russian artist who got dumped by Carrie for Big in the final season of "Sex and the City."
Through the years, his puppy quality has turned more elegant -- sharper -- and his eyes are a clear but warier Russian-melancholy blue. Significantly, he has saved his most intellectual, least American-pop side for the theater -- for the most part, modern physical theater with minimal speech.
In 1989, he made his (underrated) Broadway debut in Kafka's "Metamorphosis," as the poor salesman who wakes up one morning as a bug. Imagine the entomological wonderments. For the 2004 Lincoln Center Festival, he played a sailor whose woman is wooed away by a man with a car in an odd, overly precious piece, "Forbidden Christmas, or The Doctor and the Patient," by a celebrated Russian puppeteer. And in 2007, he exposed a private lifetime of thoughtful darkness in a quartet of short Beckett plays.
The headline on "In Paris" is that Baryshnikov, for the first time, will speak here in Russian (with English supertitles). The Latvian-born adventurer, who learned English from American commercials and old James Cagney movies on late-night Russian TV, will play a former general of the White Army who fled the Bolsheviks.
Krymov, in an email sent this week from his vacation in Italy, says his performance "is about loneliness. Of course, it is about love, too and about emigration, but first of all about loneliness . . . this person has already died, but doesn't know it yet, and he is making the last, feverish attempts to live and love."
No longer is Baryshnikov the cuddly rogue whose love life was a daily gossip item. He has lived for years with Lisa Rinehart, a former ABT dancer, with whom he has three children, ages 18 to 23. He is also close to the daughter he had in 1988 with Jessica Lange.
During "Metamorphosis" tryouts at Duke University, the students made up the word "Mishamorphosis." That's still good enough to steal.