You might know Mikhail Baryshnikov, 65, as one of the greatest ballet dancers of all time, or perhaps you recognize him as the actor who played Carrie’s love interest in the final season of “Sex in the City.” Whatever the case, Baryshnikov hopes people who see “Man in a Case” (through Dec. 22 at the Shakespeare Theatre) forget his past roles and see only the sad-sack, romantically unlucky and, for the most part, non-dancing protagonists of two Anton Chekhov short stories.
Why did you and the directors choose “Man in a Case” and “About Love” to adapt into a show?
Chekhov is the flag of Russian literature, and he’s almost as well known in the West. He speaks a universal language, like Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams, and every generation interprets it differently. These plays touch on a lot of aspects of modern life — conservatism and liberalism and ethics — from a sociopolitical point of view and a personal point of view. Also, they are both about love, and they’re not exactly the happy stories.
You’re known for making bold decisions, such as defecting from the Soviet Union in 1974 and later jumping from ballet to modern dance. Is it tough to play the timid characters of “Man in a Case”?
No matter what life you have lived, happy, unhappy, how many marriages you have had, how many children, you always have common kinds of experiences. Human beings are similar creatures. We are falling all the time into the same traps, especially when concerned with the mind and heart. You just have to use your imagination and then try to understand those characters.
What has drawn you to acting in recent years?
The theater, it is an interesting way to communicate with people, you know? It is a strange thing, people buying tickets to see a [play] written by some author a hundred, or more than a hundred, years ago, which is somehow relevant to our everyday lives. Literature, supported at least with decent directing and decent acting, is a powerful tool.
Are you a better actor or dancer?
That is a silly question. I consider myself a performer; I don’t separate the two at all. All actors should move, should dance, should recite poetry and sing and juggle and be an acrobat and move like a cat. That is what separates people who are working a lot in the theater — in the cinema, in the television — from people who are not.
You are instantly recognizable to many people. Does that make it harder to inhabit a role?
If I cannot disappear in a character, then I fail. Plus, nobody really knows me. People think they know me, but they do not, I’m afraid. I don’t know myself yet, and I’ve lived for a long time.
In the show’s first vignette, “Man in a Case,” Mikhail Baryshnikov plays Professor Belikov, a rigid, anxious man who falls in love with a free-spirited woman (Tymberly Canale). In the second, “About Love,” he portrays a man who falls for his friend’s wife. In between, he does a very brief dance for the audience. S.D.
Shakespeare Theatre’s Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW; through Dec. 22, $45-$110; 202-547-1122. (Archives)