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Dance: Baryshnikov the Commencement Speaker

By Dawn Lille
ART TIMES July online 2013

Mikhail Baryshnikov

By this time of year millions off graduates and their families have heard over 2,000 commencement speakers whose names they probably will not remember the next day. But experiencing Mikhail Baryshnikov at Northwestern University on June 21 was a treat.

This extraordinary Latvian-born dancer, actor, photographer and all around artist gave a talk that was both passionate and humorous. Addressing those who wondered why an “old guy” from Sex and The City, for whom English is a second language akin to “bungee jumping” was at the podium he gave two reasons. First his daughter, a junior at Northwestern, asked him to accept the invitation and all present had already learned that a father can never refuse his daughter. Second the task forced him to assemble his thoughts coherently, as opposed to his often chaotic and intuitive modus.

He observed that the wisdom related to the arts – for him first dance, then music, art, literature and theater – gave him an awareness of what it means to be human and made him a better human being. He feels the big question asked by any artist. Referring to the poet Joseph Brodsky, one of his heroes, is “what is important and why are we here?”

Baryshnikov urged each graduate to find out what “pushed” them and made them ask questions, what individuals confronted them with challenging questions and what issues made them go beyond themselves in the world. Warning them that Brodsky had said that the search isn’t always comfortable, he added that the more one experiences complications and contradictions the closer one is to self-understanding.

Admitting that the discipline, tunnel vision and sacrifice that this requires is not easy, and once you figure things out you still have to work on them, he advised against being brilliant 24/7. “You have to leave time to think and ask what is important …. Working to be better is not trying to be the best… which is a label someone else decides for you.”

He referred to the Yiddish word “mentsh” which he defined as someone with integrity and a sense of right and wrong, and said that we could use a few more such individuals in this world.

Baryshnikov ended by urging his audience to challenge themselves to create a space for great conversations. If the arts did this, wonderful. If not, they should go to whatever it was that truly excited them. Bigger than success is the ability to achieve a sense of connectedness to others, which is an ongoing process.

Coming from a man whose mature artistic life has been filled with humanity, this simply stated message hit its mark. It is unlikely that the class of 2013 at Northwestern will ever forget the name of their commencement speaker.

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