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Baryshnikov, still making artistic leaps

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New York — Who knew Baryshnikov was a theater kid?

Growing up in Riga, Latvia, little Misha was introduced to the world of drama by his culture-vulture mom, Alexandra. “When I was 5 or 6, my mother used to drag me around to the theater,” the world’s most celebrated living male ballet dancer is saying, as he settles into a chair in a conference room inside his Manhattan operational base, the Baryshnikov Arts Center.

At the Leningrad ballet school at which he trained, and where the intimations of his star power were noted early, “We were forced to read Russian plays: Turgenev and Gogol,” he explains in a heavy accent, still formidable nearly 40 years after his defection to the West. Theater tickets were dispensed to the students, “and I went every night when I was free.”

In his social connections, he gravitated to those who orated rather than pirouetted. “I was drawn more to the theater,” he says. I had friends who were actors, theater directors. My first girlfriend was an actress. They were more interesting to me than the other dancers.”

If the ballet was where he made his indelible mark, executing the kinds of tombécoupéjetés he performed in the “Don Quixote” manege seen in the 1977 film “The Turning Point,” the world of plays, oddly enough, is where 65-year-old Mikhail Baryshnikov is increasingly finding an artistic home. He was off recently to Antwerp and Paris, for instance, to perform in “The Old Woman,” a stage adaptation of a novella by Russian surrealist Daniil Kharms, directed by Robert Wilson and co-starring Willem Dafoe.

And now this week he arrives in Washington with “Man in a Case,” a mixed-media performance piece adapted and directed by choreographers Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar that fuses two little-known short stories by Anton Chekhov, “Man in a Case” and “About Love.” The 75-minute work, with a cast of five, begins a 17-performance run at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre on Dec. 5.

The ballets for which he’s best remembered encompass the classical canon, and his acting roles on film have sometimes been in highly commercial ventures: he was the controlling egomaniac whom Carrie Bradshaw left for Mr. Big in the final arc of HBO’s “Sex and the City.” But mirroring his movement toward modern forms later in his dance career, Baryshnikov’s theater tastes tend to run in a far more experimental vein. Some playgoers may recall that Baryshnikov made his stage debut back in 1989 as Gregor Samsa, the office worker in Kafka’s novella “The Metamorphosis” who wakes up one morning transformed into a dung beetle.

The short-lived Broadway adaptation, directed by the English avant-garde director Steven Berkoff, was skewered in the New York Times by Frank Rich, who described Berkoff’s take on Kafka as “Marxist kitsch” and observed that Baryshnikov’s performance, “however dignified, amounts to little more than a sideshow to the loud circus surrounding him.”

“You gamble onstage,” Baryshnikov says now, reflecting on that experience and other out-there theater ventures he’s committed to over the years. (For that one, he says, he naively acceded to the urgings of his friend Roman Polanski, who enthused at the prospect of him acting on Broadway.) “I have been in successful productions sometimes. And I’ve sucked many times, too.”

The words “Baryshnikov” and “sucked” don’t naturally fit together comfortably, but in sitting with Baryshnikov for a spell, you get the strong sense that he’s less interested in perfectionism in his artistic endeavors than in mind-expanding adventurism. And these days, he prefers to succeed or fail with collaborators, like Wilson or Parson, whose own accomplishments provide a baseline confidence in the strength of the project and for him, enjoyment in the process of making it work.

“It’s too late in my life for unpleasant surprises,” he says.

‘Not some, all the masters’

Enough time has elapsed since the height of Baryshnikov’s ballet powers in the 1970s and ’80s that younger readers might need a bit of a primer about him; indeed, he says, he’s sometimes forced in his travels to explain to people that he’s not Aleksandr Petrovsky, the fictional visual artist he played on “Sex and the City.” A one-time star of the St. Petersburg-based Kirov Ballet, one of the world’s two or three greatest companies, he defected in Canada in 1974 while touring with the Kirov and soon joined American Ballet Theatre in New York as a principal dancer.

Over the years, guest appearances with the Royal Ballet and the New York City Ballet and other companies cemented an impression of him as one of the greatest dancers of all time. And his desire to branch out led him not only to become artistic director of the ABT for a decade, but also to TV, movie and stage collaborations with everyone from Jerome Robbins to Twyla Tharp; in 1990, he and choreographer Mark Morris co-founded the modernist White Oak Dance Project. He even scored a supporting- actor Oscar nomination for his performance in the ballet-themed “The Turning Point.”

“He worked with all of the greats, not some, all the masters of the 20th century, [George] Balanchine, [Merce] Cunningham, you name it,” Parson says, by phone. “He knows how to experiment and how to try things on and throw them off. And he’s comfortable being inside of a process with peculiar artists because that’s what he trades in.”

If the burdens of his vaunted status are heavy, they don’t seem to wear on the personable Baryshnikov, who greets a visitor to the collection of performance and studio spaces he founded in 2005 on Manhattan’s West Side with nothing like Petrovsky’s aloofness. His neck wrapped chicly in a scarf, he kicks back and talks in plain language about the artistic life. Of the vicissitudes of the stage, he avers: “It’s a crapshoot anyway. You know, s--- happens.”

Clearly, though, when it comes to attracting partners with big reputations, it does help to be Baryshnikov. He says he likes to surround himself with collaborators he considers peers, “people you share misery and success with on a friendly basis.”

And after his early envelopment in the rigors of ballet training, an education that exploited his natural athletic gifts and provided a technical road map on which he could always depend, he’s fascinated by the higher volume of communication generated in the rehearsing of a play. “Theater is more complicated because, let’s say, choreographers trust you more,” he says. “They know the way you move, so it’s more of a silent exchange.” In working out a play with a director, he says, “There’s much more potential for emotional conflict.”

A more grounded approach

Audience memories of a dancer whose leaps seemed to hang in midair will pursue Baryshnikov to the Lansburgh. But by all accounts the movement in “Man in a Case” — which is being produced at the Lansburgh by Baryshnikov Productions as the starting point of a national tour — will be more gestural than athletic. In other words, do not come to see Baryshnikov leap.

The piece, which had its world premiere at Hartford Stage in February, grew out of the experience of Parson and Lazar and their Big Dance Theater in adapting literary works by, among others, Gustave Flaubert and Mark Twain. The idea for “Man in a Case” jelled after Baryshnikov approached them.

“Misha had been seeing our work for a while, and he brought a project to us, and through talking about that project we came to a different project,” says Parson, choreographer of the Public Theater’s recent hit “Here Lies Love,” a bio-musical with music by David Byrne about the political rise of Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos.

Baryshnikov says he grew up reading and loving the plays and short stories of Chekhov and was enamored of distilling his voice onstage in a new way. He senses in the writer’s work the disaffection of the Russian people at that time, even if current events crop up in his work in tangential ways. “Chekhov was not a political writer, but he reflected the political issues of that time,” he says.

“Man in a Case” is the story, recounted by a group of friends in a hunting party, of Belikov, an oddball Greek scholar obsessed with rules, and the strange and ultimately failed courtship he undertakes; “About Love” is another tale the friends share, of a country gentleman and the torch he carries for a married woman. “They’re both about unresolved love,” Baryshnikov says, adding that in “Man in a Case,” we are given a portrait of a deeply authoritarian man, and how that streak governs every aspect of his life.

According to Lazar, the development of “Man in a Case” required an adaptation by Baryshnikov himself, to the company’s style of storytelling, which involves music, photography, video and movement. “We’re very comfortable diving into literature and creating something from it for the stage, but what we don’t do is write a script per se,” Lazar says. “We do it on our feet.”

Actually, that process sounds as if it would be squarely in Baryshnikov’s wheelhouse. How sharply that has indeed occurred, and what feelings spectators take away from the experience, the great dancer does not want to speculate.

“It’s up to the audience to decide, I think,” he says. “Theater is supposed to be about giving the material to the audience, and they decide.”

Man in a Case

adapted from stories by Anton Chekhov and directed by Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar/ Big Dance Theater. SDec. 5 through Dec. 22 at Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.

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