5:21 PM CDT, June 26, 2013
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.
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.
"Russians are fatalists," he said, leaning back in his chair. He had begun to relax. "I am blessed that somebody up there is giving me these long years, and I'm interested in my life and my wife and my kids and my grandkids."
He has four children, one with the actor Jessica Lange and three with Lisa Rinehart, a fellow dancer who came with him to Evanston. Their daughter Anna is studying acting at Northwestern, which is how he came to be this year's graduation speaker.
When the kids were young, he tried to be home in time for dinner. Now that they're all out of the house, he stays out late. He gets up most mornings and goes to his office at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, an arts complex he founded in Manhattan.
And sometimes he dances.
"It hurts more," he said, "and there's a longer warm-up."
He stays in shape with a regular dance routine, physical therapy and stretching.
"Choreographers use me as the old guy who still dances," he said. "Not that I put on white tights."
He leaves the white tights to the young people. And he likes dancing with them, likes their energy, just as he enjoyed being the "rookie" actor on "Sex and the City," forced to keep up and learn new tricks.
"I'm an impatient person in many respects," he said. "I like to put myself in uncomfortable situations. It forces me to deliver."
And he's far from done, though having come from a place where men die young, he can't help but continue to think about his mortality.
"Every night," he said. "Of course. But I don't panic yet."
"A little bit of panic about tomorrow's speech."
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