Mikhail Baryshnikov is a master of innovation. This week he utilizes his expertise in both dance and drama to make his Shakespeare Theatre Company debut in “Man in a Case.” Adapted from two Chekhov stories by Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar, the multimedia production features Misha, as he prefers to be called, and members of their Big Dance Theater.
Despite having flown in from Paris the previous evening, Mr. Baryshnikov was in his New York office early on Monday of last week, eager to spend the rest of the day rehearsing with the genre-bending ensemble, which Miss Parson and Mr. Lazar founded in 1991 with actress Molly Hickock. His energy and excitement pulsated across the telephone lines as he described the project to The Washington Times.
“I’ve known Annie-B from the stage and admired Paul in his films with the Wooster Group. She’s a wonderful choreographer and he’s a great character actor, so when they gave me carte blanche to work with them, I happily agreed,” Mr. Baryshnikov said.
“I grew up reading Russian short stories,” said the legendary dancer, who defected from the Soviet Union in 1974. “By the time I was 14 or 15, those by Anton Chekhov were must-reads in my literature classes. Belikov, the role I play in ‘Man in a Case,’ is a professor of Greek, an iconic character who is very conservative, strange and eccentric. Annie-B suggested that we pair the story with another Chekhov work, ‘About Love.’ In each case, a man and a woman are involved in a classic situation, but they have very different perspectives.”
The characters and plots evolve through music, dance, video and “surveillance footage,” a reference to the content of the various computer screens that magnify Belikov’s odd personality. The title comes from one character’s observation that the professor is ingrown and shelters himself from reality. The action is lightly choreographed while technical people on stage manipulate microfilms to simulate movement and introduce multiple characters. Chekhov’s original setting in 19th century Russia springs forward to the present through the mixed media that incorporates folk dances, hunting videos and interviews with the cast. The craftsmanship throughout is typical of Miss Parson’s unique visions, which have earned numerous awards, grants and commissions.
“Belikov is a hermit and very tight,” Mr. Baryshnikov said. “He has few necessities, only his books. And he is extremely suspicious. The audience learns this from his room full of cameras in front and in back of the doors. His strangeness is the diametric opposite of the character I play in ‘About Love,’ who has a lengthy romance with a married woman. The first story ends tragically, yet the other has no happy ending.”
Indisputably the greatest dancer of his generation, Mr. Baryshnikov has the rare gift of excelling in all he does. Ever since his early career with Kirov Ballet, he has aimed beyond expectations. A person with less drive and courage might never have left Russia. But after meeting choreographer George Balanchine there in 1972, he was so inspired to work with him and other dance innovators in the United States that two years later he seized a chance to elude the KGB agents accompanying a Kirov tour to Toronto and seek political asylum there. He joined the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, but not for long.
Shortly after moving to New York, he became principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. For the next few years, he toured with various ballet and modern dance companies, all the while gleaning knowledge from such famed choreographers as Jerome Robbins, Alvin Ailey and Twyla Tharp. By 1978, he became a principal of the New York City Ballet, where he continued to absorb Balanchine’s technology and develop his own style.
In 1980, he returned to the ABT as artistic director, a role he retained for 10 years. In time, his passion for contemporary dance led to his founding the White Oak Dance Project with choreographer Mark Morris. Today, as artistic director of his Baryshnikov Foundation in New York, he provides rehearsal space and support for new artists from throughout the world and launches multimedia projects like “Man in a Case.”
Buoyed by a pioneer spirit and resounding success in film and television, Mr. Baryshnikov constantly pursues new vistas. The actor within him blazed forth early on. In 1997, he received an Oscar nomination for his role as a Russian ballet dancer in the film “The Turning Point.” He danced with Liza Minnelli and Nell Carter in the 1980 television special “Baryshnikov on Broadway,” co-starred with Gregory Hines and Isabella Rossellini in the 1985 film “White Nights,” and whisked Sarah Jessica Parker (Carrie Bradshaw) off to Paris during the final season of “Sex in the City.”
On stage, he continues to blur borders. Two years ago, he and Russian actress Anna Sinyakina took the play “In Paris” to venues in this country, Israel and across Europe. It was adapted from a Russian short story by Ivan Bunin, the first Russian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
This past summer, he tapped the commedia dell’arte tradition to don the persona of a clown in “The Old Woman,” a new production launched under the auspices of his White Oak Dance Project. The physically demanding role was developed from a short story by Russian surrealist and dissident Daniil Kharms, who died in a psychiatric ward in 1942.
“It premiered at the Manchester International Festival before going to the Spoleto Festival and was very well received at both,” Mr. Baryshnikov said. “I’m expecting an equally good response to ‘Man in a Case’ from the Washington audience. Hartford Stage in Connecticut commissioned and premiered it this past spring. We’ve since cleaned it up and believe it’s now ready to be presented in the great Shakespeare Theatre space.”
WHERE: Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St., NW
WHEN: Dec. 5-22; Tues., Wed. and Sun. at 7:30 p.m.; Thur.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. and Sun. at 2 p.m.