Baryshnikov's Advice to Grads: Be Generous Enough to Let Yourself Fail

What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.

The heart of his message: Be generous.


After promising not to talk politics, he said he would go "180 degrees in the opposite direction" by talking about generosity.

Appropriately, he started with the ceremony's most obvious example: the woman who made USC's dance program possible—Glorya Kaufman, arts patron extraordinaire.

But he went on to explain that generosity is about a lot more than donating money. It's also about:


  • Sharing. He thanked his mother for opening his eyes to dance.
  • Teaching. He thanked his teachers who shaped him.
  • Artistic collaboration. "To collaborate is to be generous with your time, your body, your soul. It's always a two-way street—you give, you get."
  • Allowing yourself to take risks. "As young creative artists, and really as human beings, you have to be open to failure," he said. "Failure is a part of learning.... As a very old dancer, I have had many, many opportunities to fail. It happens. Projects collapse, knees blow out, money dries up. But you as artists, and as young people discovering what you care about, you must be generous to that spark inside yourself that made you love dance in the first place."
A row of students in cap and gowns listen to a graduation speech

USC students listening to Baryshnikov's speech

But he's realistic. He knows that dancers can have a hard time being generous with themselves.

" 'My jump is not high enough, my turns aren't perfect, I can't get my leg behind my ear.' Please don't do that. Sometimes there's an obsession with technique that can kill your best impulses. But communicating with an art form means being vulnerable. Being imperfect. And most of the time this is much more interesting. Trust me."

And with a sly smile, he ended the speech by breaking his promise: He talked about politics.

He said he'd recently been wondering why artists tend to lean left politically. "Maybe, just maybe, it is because the arts get to the heart of what's important to us, meaning our humanity. The arts are the best form of truth that we have. We must be vigilant to protect and maintain a society that respects this idea. This means we must participate as citizens whenever possible. You, me, all of us. We must give our time, our thought, our caring to ensure that our country has the awareness and the courage, the generosity of spirit that is necessary for art to flourish."

Latest Posts


Carlos Gonzalez (Ernesto Linnermann, courtesy Gonzalez)

4 Latinx Dancers Breaking Boundaries

It's National Hispanic Heritage Month, a period observed from September 15 to October 15 that recognizes the contributions of Latinx and Hispanic communities to American culture. The dance world has been lucky enough to be on the receiving end of those contributions, with Latinx dance artists leaving legacies that have helped move it to a more inclusive place.

At Dance Spirit, we're celebrating the month by highlighting four Latinx dancers whose groundbreaking work is opening doors for the next generation.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Goucher College students performing Women's Resistance (Jason Lee, courtesy Goucher College)

4 Colleges Committed to Diversifying Their Dance Curriculums

In the face of today's racial crisis, many Americans are now reckoning with their own complicity in the oppression of marginalized groups, and asking, "What can I do?" For college dance programs, which help mold the minds of the next generation of dance artists, this is an especially important question. For decades, most departments have centered on white, Western styles—ballet, modern, contemporary—rather than dedicating resources to the world's myriad other dance forms.

Fortunately, some college dance programs have pledged to diversify their course offerings, and to dismantle the layers of white supremacy that still pervade our art on a larger scale. And while many colleges are now beginning this work, a few have made
it a central part of their mission for years. Here are four schools with longstanding commitments to a more equitable dance education.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Class at Butler University (Michaela Semenza, courtesy Butler University)

The Truth About Grades as a Dance Major

You may know what it means to earn a silver, gold, or platinum award for your performance—but probably not an A, B, or C grade. Often, dancers don't encounter the idea of grading in dance until they enter collegiate dance programs. When you're evaluating an inherently subjective art form, what distinguishes an A student from a B student?

The answer: It's complicated. "There's a lot that goes into creating a well-rounded, successful student, which hopefully produces a well-rounded, successful professional," says Angelina Sansone, a ballet instructor at University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

In college programs, set movement phrases, repertory selections, or audition-style classes often serve as graded midterms or final exams. Written components such as self-assessments, audition research projects, and dance history tests might count as well. But the largest contributing factor to your grade is usually how you approach the work, day in and day out.

Dance Spirit talked to faculty across the country to discover what it takes to be a top student—and why dance grades matter.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks

contest
Enter the Cover Model Search