On this day in 1974, Russian ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov defected from the Soviet Union after a performance in Toronto. The dance virtuoso had been performing a series of shows at the O’Keefe Centre (now Sony Centre) with the USSR’s Bolshoi group.
Baryshnikov had already become an international name in the dance community in Russia’s legendary Kirov (now Mariinsky) Ballet. However, the Soviet system did not allow for him to fully realize his creative ambitions, as he would be able to in the U.S.
Defecting from the Soviet Union seems like it would simply require walking into the U.S. Embassy while in a western country and saying, “I want to defect.” Of course, it was much more complicated than that, as all Soviet entertainment groups traveled with escorts/guards. Baryshnikov later stated that he had been plotting to defect since 1970 and seized his chance in Toronto.
He was one of two Kirov dancers added to the Bolshoi tour to give it a boost in talent and they performed their first show on June 24. On June 29, the night of the last show, Baryshnikov eluded his escorts long enough to sneak out the O’Keefe’s back door to a waiting vehicle. He was whisked away to a country house north of Toronto while the necessary papers for his defection were prepared.
On July 27, Baryshnikov made his post-defection debut with the American Ballet Theatre and has since become the most recognizable face of ballet in the world.
In 1985, he starred in “White Nights,” a movie about a defecting Russian dancer whose plane has to make an emergency landing in the Soviet Union.