Photo courtesy DM Archives

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

Courtesy USC

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."

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The 27 years that Ruth Bader Ginsburg spent on the U.S. Supreme Court were 27 years that she spent as one of Washington, D.C.'s most ardent, elegant and erudite supporters of the performing arts. The justice, who died on September 18 of metastatic cancer, was also an avid cultural tourist, traveling to the Santa Fe and Glimmerglass operas nearly every summer, as well as occasionally returning to catch shows in her native New York City.

Ginsburg's opera fandom was well known, but her tastes were wide-ranging. Particularly in the last 10 years of her life, after Ginsburg lost her beloved husband, Marty, it was not unusual for the petite justice and her security detail to be spotted at theaters several nights a week. She saw everything, from classic musicals to serious new plays, plus performances that defied classification, like Martha Clarke's dance drama Chéri, with Alessandra Ferri and Herman Cornejo, which toured to the Kennedy Center in 2014.

To honor Ginsburg, Dance Magazine asked three dance artists whose performances the justice attended to recall what Ginsburg meant to them.

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