Noted artist in a new role — NU commencement speaker

The graduation speaker hadn't finished writing his speech.

It was Thursday afternoon. Northwestern's graduation was Friday morning. He had things to do besides sit for an interview.

"Let's get started," he said crisply.

In the noisy, shadowy lobby of the Hotel Orrington in Evanston, no one passing by noticed him for a while, this slight, middle-aged man who from a distance looked like a million other guys in tan sports coats, unless you happened to notice how gracefully he crossed his legs or how he wove the air with his fingers while he talked.

The speech. What would he say?

He'd say that art is not just for the artist. That one of the highest compliments for anyone in any field is to be called an artist. That there's artistry to politics.

He would say these things to students far better educated than he was at their age. At 19, after growing up in a communal apartment in Latvia, sharing a single kitchen and a single toilet with other families, he'd gone straight to work, to dance, and before long to America.

"And then," he said, "life went like that."

He snapped his fingers to show how fast life happens.

Like that.

And it was at that moment that a gray-haired guy in a blue golf shirt figured out who he was. The guy stood and gawked, holding his smartphone like a hopeful suitor clutching a corsage he was too shy to present.

"Can I take your picture?" the guy finally blurted.

For a quarter of a beat, Mikhail Baryshnikov hesitated. Then he took off his glasses and gazed straight into the lens.

"Quickly," he said, and the guy walked off happy.

Baryshnikov may not be the most famous commencement speaker Northwestern has ever had — it's hard to top Barack Obama and Stephen Colbert — but he remains one of the most famous dancers of all time, a fact that may be less relevant to the current college generation than his role as Carrie Bradshaw's temperamental older boyfriend on "Sex and the City."

In his season on the show, Baryshnikov was called "The Russian," and to many Americans, especially those old enough to remember when his ballets and romances made headlines, he will always be quintessentially Russian.

To himself, he's fully American.

Since his notorious defection in 1974, he has never been back to Russia, he said, though he has been back to Latvia, where his mother, who committed suicide when he was in his teens, is buried.

"I'm a product of Russian culture," he said, "but I never felt it was my country."

In the finger-snap of life since Baryshnikov arrived in the United States, he has lived many lives: dancer, actor, entrepreneur, parent, grandparent. He is 65 now. A dozen years ago, he told an interviewer he didn't think he'd live past 60.