Born in Riga in 1948, Mikhail Nikolaevitch Baryshnikov started ballet school in 1960 at the age of 12. Four years later, at 16, he entered the Vaganova School and soon won the top prize in the junior division of the international competition.
In 1967, at 19 years old, Mikhail Baryshnikov joined the Kirov Ballet and made his debut at the Marriinsky Theater in Giselle. This garnered the attention of Soviet choreographers Oleg Vinogradov, Konstantin Sergeyev, Igor Tchernichov, and Leonid Jakobson. Jakobson created Vestris for Baryshnikov, and this become one of his signature roles.
In 1974, while performing with Kirov in Canada, Baryshnikov defected, requesting asylum in Toronto. He performed with the National Ballet of Canada in La Sylphide before heading to the United States.
From 1974 to 1979, Baryshnikov was the principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, partnering with Gelsey Kirkland. He also performed with George Balanchine for the New York City Ballet. He toured for nearly 15 months in roles created specifically for him: Opus 19: The Dreamer, Rhapsody, and Other Dances.
In addition to dancing, Baryshnikov appeared in the movie The Turning Point in 1977 and was nominated for an Oscar. In 1985 he starred with Gregory Hines in White Nights and again in Dancers in 1987.
In 1980, Baryshnikov returned to the American Ballet Theatre to dance and serve as artistic director, a position he held through 1990. During this time, Baryshnikov had a relationship with actress Jessica Lange that produced a daughter, Aleksandra.
In 1986, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States. From 1990 to 2002, Baryshnikov served as artistic director of the White Oak Dance Project, a touring company founded with Mark Morris. This project was geared for older dancers, who by critic standards were beyond the craft.
In 2004, he launched the Baryshnikov Arts Centre in New York. Baryshnikov has three children with long term partner and former ballerina, Lisa Rinehart.