Ballet virtuoso Mikhail Baryshnikov urges graduating students to challenge themselves, tackle tough questions


Edward Cox/The Daily Northwestern

Ballet maestro Mikhail Baryshnikov looks out at Northwestern's commencement audience Friday morning. Baryshnikov delivered the commencement address, something he said he decided to do at the urging of his daughter Anna, a Communication junior.

Patrick Svitek, Summer Editor

For most members of the class of 2013, Mikhail Baryshnikov’s commencement address will be remembered for its emphasis on redefining personal success and starting what he called the “big conversations” in post-graduate life. The world-renowned ballet dancer’s daughter was struck by it for a less philosophical reason.

“I have to say the highlight for me was the delivery of ‘Go Cats,'” rising Communication senior Anna Baryshnikov said. “To hear it with the Russian accent and that amount of enthusiasm was pretty fun.”

Her father’s full-throated declaration of the Northwestern cheer — followed by two blown kisses and a quick bow — concluded a ruminative and self-effacing speech Friday morning at Northwestern’s 155th commencement ceremony. The founder and artistic director of the New York-based Baryshnikov Arts Center highlighted the power of his craft while challenging graduating students to find their own passions.

“Figure out what pushes you,” he told them. “If it isn’t the arts, what is your trigger? What makes you ask big questions?”

(Photo gallery: Commencement 2013)

More than 12,000 people filled Ryan Field for the hour-and-a-half ceremony, including about 4,500 undergraduate and graduate students, according to the University.

Along with three other pioneers in their respective fields, Mikhail Baryshnikov received an honorary degree from NU.

“You have done more to present artistic dance to a global public than anyone in history,” University Provost Daniel Linzer told Mikhail Baryshnikov as he presented the degree.

Mikhail Baryshnikov mentioned his own achievements as he urged the class of 2013 to reconsider their interpretation of success.

“Do not make your goal to be the best. ‘Best’ is a label. It’s something someone else decides for you,” he said. “‘Better’ is more personal. It’s a process, and in my opinion, ‘better’ is something more interesting than ‘best.'”
Part of that process, he said, is finding the causes that “make you willing to go beyond yourself” and confront the toughest questions in society.

Weinberg senior Maryam Adamu continued the general theme of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s speech minutes later in her message to parents and family members.

“To the people behind the class of 2013, I’m sure you by now know we have so much left to do,” Adamu said. “There are structural norms that we have yet to tell. There are masterpieces we have yet to create. There are scientific discoveries we have yet to find. And I know you won’t believe me when I say this, but, yes, there are Netflix instant watch movies that we have yet to see.”

Like Adamu, Baryshnikov took a few breaks from his introspective speech for comic relief. He riffed on the quarter system, NU’s late graduation date compared to other schools and Evanston winters, which he described as “not quite Siberia, but pretty close.” He also poked fun at his name recognition across different generations, saying he knew some audience members were thinking, “Why is the old guy from ‘Sex and the City’ giving our commencement speech?”

Baryshnikov said his daughter talked him into delivering the commencement address, and he solicited advice from former President Bill Clinton and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, “a fellow former dancer who just happens to be involved” in local politics. He said Clinton told him to keep it brief, and he did, clocking in at less than 20 minutes.

As he recalled his daughter convincing him to deliver the commencement speech, Mikhail Baryshnikov offered his first lesson of the morning.

“If you become fathers to daughters, watch out,” he said. “You’ll probably agree to things you shouldn’t agree to. And you daughters already know what I’m talking about.”

Anna Baryshnikov said it was “more of a mutual decision” that resulted from a stern email she sent him about why his story would resonate with the NU community. She was less adamant about seeing him on the same stage this time next year.

“No, definitely not,” she said. “I don’t think anyone needs life lessons from their parents on their own graduation day.”

Summer editor Patrick Svitek can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at