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."

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