HIS CURSE ROLLS out in this long caressing drawl, still rich with the accent of Latvia. 'Oh my God-d-d-d-d.' Mikhail Baryshnikov is limbering up for another hated press interview. The thing is they bore him. The thing is he's said it all. And so many times. When you're the world's most famous living ballet dancer and you've thrown yourself into life the way he has, there's a lot that you simply can't leave behind. And that, notoriously, irritates him. The hottest item of the Cold War, the Kirov Ballet's romantic prince who, aged 26, didn't so much grand jete as frantically sprint to freedom in the West, the bantamweight ballet dancer whose pin-up looks and Casanova lifestyle mesmerised every bit as much as his impeccable dance technique - Baryshnikov has seen his own life story in print too many times. He wants to move on and won't entertain nostalgia. But then he will keep on talking. 'Oh my God,' says Baryshnikov with a heavy sigh, 'that was so many years ago and I never bought that fame stuff - I took all that attention with a healthy dose of irony. I knew perfectly well my own value. You pretty much know what you did and why you did it.' It's all nonsense, he snorts. 'I live my life and that's all that matters, [stardom] did not affect me at all. Nothing has changed in my life.' He, you quickly realise, is clearly given to laughable understatement. These days, on the surface at least, there is a very different Baryshnikov from the once moody man-about-town. He is a happy, easy-going, relaxed family man, living outside Manhattan near the Hudson River with former ballerina Lisa Rinehart, their three school-age children and a houseful of dogs. He plays golf, smokes cigars, has made millions from his perfume line, movie appearances in Shirley MacLaine's The Turning Point and White Knights (1985) and his total of 13 years at the American Ballet Theatre (ABT). But this now deeply lined, bespectacled, reflective 52-year-old was the golden-locked, blue-eyed boy who danced in the 70s and 80s before capacity audiences screaming maniacally for more, who stunned with his athleticism and theatricality, who danced in galas with Merce Cunningham, starred on TV with former lover Liza Minelli, was nominated for an Oscar in The Turning Point, and dated a string of famous women - actresses Jessica Lange (with whom he had a child), Jacqueline Bisset and Charlotte Lewis, dancers Gelsey Kirkland and Cheryl Yeager, and prima ballerina Natalia Makarova. Famously, of course, his real love affair has always been with dance, firstly ballet and, soon after his defection, with the edgier world of modern dance. This weekend Hong Kong gets to see him for the first time, in the most quickly sold out show of the Arts Festival. For once, a modern dance performance has been easy to market here. Baryshnikov performs for three nights with his White Oak Dance Project, a company he formed with enfant terrible choreographer Mark Morris 11 years ago and which is named after close friend, the late philanthropist Howard Gilman, who owned the 2,835 hectare White Oak Plantation in Florida where the company has a studio. The Plantation has offered a retreat for everyone from former president Bill Clinton to Colin Powell and Julia Roberts. With the company, Baryshnikov has commissioned works by some of the foremost modern choreographers, has danced to the beat of his own heart, wearing a wireless, electronic device attached to his chest and has worked with a core of exceptional dancers who part between shows and reunite only for productions they all want to do. 'I don't have much of a style,' Baryshnikov has said of his contemporary dance performances. 'I just try to give a piece justice.' But in recent years, critics have become less kind, suggesting he moved to modern dance because he could no longer handle ballet's physical stress. And that in his second career, too, age and injuries - he has had repeated knee operations - are beginning to take their toll. But that's to overlook the fact he moved to contemporary dance long before his ballet days were over. Modern dance was the main reason for his famous escape from the Soviet Union. It was 1974 and the young Baryshnikov was performing in Toronto. He came from Leningrad, where he had quickly become a legend, bringing a magic and the closest thing to perfection to an unbending, mired ballet world. He had left behind a troubled family home in Riga, Latvia's capital, where his father was a strict military officer and where his mother had been the one to encourage the artistic boy before she hanged herself when he was 12. In Toronto performing with some Russian dancers, he finally arranged to do what had been on his mind for years. To escape to the West and pursue his interest in modern dance, which he saw as more accessible, less institutionalised. Outside the Canadian theatre where he was appearing, a getaway car, driven by Jim Peterson, currently Canada's federal minister for international trade, was waiting. But there were technical hitches with the show he was in, delaying him 15 minutes. And then Baryshnikov's performance, once the curtain did go up, was so brilliant the audience applauded for another 15 minutes. Getting out of the O'Keefe Theatre at last, he suddenly found himself mobbed by fans as he tried to slip away. And in the end, desperate, he simply ran - right on to the covers of Time and Newsweek. It was the worst of times for him. 'Defection was most disturbing period of my life. Yes, I would have done the same, but I would have liked to have lived differently . . . been able to travel back and forth. 'For me, time was ticking. I couldn't wait any longer . . . not with Leonid Brezhnev in power, all those problems. I wanted to work around the world.' Hidden away by friends, he started looking for a new role. And he ended up at the American Ballet Theatre. ABT was Baryshnikov's last great run as a ballet dancer, though it was also there that he used the company to launch into contemporary work. He stayed there for a decade and a half, first as a dancer, then coming back for nine problem years as artistic director, despite having defected again, in 1978, to dance for George Balanchine's New York City Ballet in 1979. At ABT he made what some saw as too many changes too quickly. He was also absent for long periods making movies. But he created a classical company with a gorgeous corps de ballet and American stars, and brought in exciting new choreographers. The ballet company started doing modern dance. But after 10 years, Baryshnikov gave up, fed up of the administrative life, strikes, drug use among some of the dancers. He didn't, he said, want to be a doorman. And so he formed White Oak to get back to the creative process. Baryshnikov explains he moved to modern dance because he feels it demands audience participation. 'It's more grounded. The audiences are closer to you. It's plainer work.' With ballet, 'that's kind of a lot of tutus . . . you know what it is. You whistle the music, you know. This is different . . . You are witnessing a totally fresh work. 'It's extraordinary art,' he says. 'You discover something in depth all the time. It is a thinking process and extremely frustrating, extremely satisfying. Sometimes it may work well, sometimes not. Because I'm not a choreographer, I'm not totally in charge of my stage presence. I'm interpreter' - he still drops the odd word and searches for expression - 'when I put the responsibility of performance also on the shoulders of my co-creators abilities. It simplifies on the one hand and also creates certain complexity because it's the achievement of several people.' The man who once said, 'I never call myself a star, I'm a dancer', just tries to do his best, he says with a self-deprecating laugh. Surely he realises his best is more than most dancers can dream of? 'In modern dance, we're all fools,' he says. 'We go in front of the audience and make silly things. It's the silliest job ever and the most honourable at the same time. But you have to take this chance if you think of yourself as [having] any kind of stature as a performer because to play safe is easy.' Playing safe is, he jokes,'like playing golf with no pants on'. 'There is plenty of dance, plenty of theatre that is very boring, very safe. One should take chance. And sometimes you literally fall, but without trying you can't get there to a certain level. 'One always hopes that you channel your work into some kind of minimalism and purity and clear essence of the movement. But it's only your eternal hope. What comes out is up to others to decide.' There are certain rules and ethics of the theatre you follow, he says. 'It is the crystalisation of your dreams over 30-40 years. You can't put a piece of paper in front of you and say I've achieved this or that. It doesn't happen that way. You wake up and say: 'what's today?'' 'You have to go and work. It's an essential part of living. Some days you feel good about it and some days you feel confused.' How much longer will he perform? 'As long as I have interesting material in front of me, and I can do it without compromises. I don't think I've done it all. I don't scratch the possibilities of anything. How do you know what a person is capable of doing? I should not complain. I've had great fortune to meet extraordinary people. I was very lucky.' Besides, he adds, 'if you know what's going to happen next, you should stay home'.