CITIZENS OF HUMANITY MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV
By Amy Phillips Penn

“When Misha was in Russia, he had to leave everything behind; absolutely everything, including a white poodle that he loved. When he was ready, we bought him a black poodle, named La Goalie,” said Remi Saunder.

When I first met Remi, I immediately wanted to know her better. She was fun, bright and a beacon to famous Russian dancers and artists. Remi is one of New York’s great conduits in the New York Russian community.

Stop by her apartment and you might see Olga and Elena Rostropovich, daughters of the famous soprano and cellist parents. Having tea? Maybe? More likely, helping Remi paint her apartment.

I grabbed a brush and stroked away. This was hardly the backstage glam of meeting famous performers, but when Russia meets New York…

“Russians really don’t trust many people, so they prefer to be with Russians, when they can,” says Remi. She credits her Russian star magnetism to being a friend of the late Sol Hurok, the powerhouse impresario of his age.

Saunder and her friend, the late Howard Gilman, initially teamed up to take care of Baryshnikov. Remi worked as his personal assistant. Howard would later become his business manager. Even later, he would become the patron of Misha’s “White Oak Dance Company.”

Image courtesy of twistedsifter

Image courtesy of twistedsifter

“The move was traumatic. Everything, including the language and business contracts was new to him” adds Remi.

While Misha blew away the American dance world, his universe gave way to an explosion of fans, social climbers, crushes and greater than great expectations. Privacy was not included. So Saunder and Gilman became increasingly protective and parental.

“A psychic once told me that there would be a man coming oversees who would be like a child to Howard and me,” said Remi.

When Baryshnikov wasn’t performing, he was frequently the guest of Howard Gilman at his Florida White Oak Plantation. Mikhail became “Misha” there.

Image courtesy of fbcdn

Image courtesy of fbcdn

From private planes to the plantation, everything was a fantasy that flowed into the mesmerism of a dance set that defied even the most creative of set designers. Misha rode, played tennis, inhaled vodka shots and smoked an unhealthy number of cigarettes. In time, as he became more settled, the cigarettes diminished. Saunder had taken him to a hypnotist; the American antidote worked, at least for a while.

White Oak’s magic soothed and delighted.

The former rice plantation was a fantasy in its own right: African endangered animals roamed in as much freedom as acres and acres of subtly fenced grass could provide: giraffes, gazelles, rhinos, cheetahs, a white tiger and other exotics did their own shows: leaps, stretches and performances that an adoring audience brings.

Image courtesy of nycdancestuff

Image courtesy of nycdancestuff

The main home was a log cabin with a help-yourself bar; a stone decorated fireplace. The bathroom at the end of the hall highlighted a Renoir painting, a stunning surprise on a bathroom wall of a seemingly unpretentious lodge.

The stables hosted horses for the guests, and several retired champions from the national show ring. Chestnut Secretariat foals grazed, lifting their beautiful faces only to show enough poise and pride with a flick of a well groomed mane to assure you that they were special…let’s make that “it.”

Baryshnikov was one of their own: A Champion athlete who needed time out to buck and run.

On rainy days, there was a bowling alley and movie theater to choose from; the latter decorated with remnants of a Chinese restaurant.  Eventually there would be a dance studio for Misha and his “White Oak,” company.

On sunnier days, the nine goal golf course—complete with foliage from an entire nursery—was there to be played along with two private golf pros. Misha took up golf, or, perhaps golf took up Misha. He was obsessed with the sport.

As his fame tour jete’d without wavering, the American/Russian welcomed and embraced everything in his path.

Spaseeba, Misha.

So glad you landed for more than a dance interlude. You are much more than Carrie Bradshaw’s boyfriend Aleksandr Petrovsky in New York’s eyes.

Featured image courtesy of hotspotorlando

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