Mikhail Baryshnikov is standing alone on stage. A woman walks toward him. Not a prima ballerina, but a young Moscow-born actress named Anna Sinyakina, or “a mysterious creature,” as Baryshnikov calls her.
He doesn’t lift her over his head. She doesn’t spin swiftly between his fingers. Their bodies are still. He speaks Russian for the first time on stage. This is not the image most people have of Baryshnikov performing. He is now 64, about two decades past the period that he considers the peak of his ballet career.
This week, Baryshnikov kicks off the U.S. premiere of In Paris, an adaptation of a short story by Ivan Bunin, the first Russian to win a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1933, at Broad Stage in Santa Monica. Bunin lived in exile in France after the Russian Civil War (1918-1920) and died in Paris in 1953, never having returned to Russia. Bunin’s background informs In Paris.
“It’s a very simple story about a White Army general who lives in Paris and meets a young woman, also Russian, and they have a certain tragic love affair,” Baryshnikov says via phone from his Baryshnikov Arts Center offices in Manhattan. He speaks in a matter-of-fact tone, which he maintains throughout our conversation two weeks before the Los Angeles opening. The premiere of In Paris took place in Helsinki in August 2011. The show then traveled to the Netherlands, Paris and Tel Aviv, and it’s scheduled to continue on to Berkeley, Italy and New York. The script is in French and Russian, with English supertitles.
Parallels flow between Bunin’s, Baryshnikov’s and the fictional character’s stories. Baryshnikov’s father was in the Russian military — although, Baryshnikov notes with a laugh, the general in the play was in the White Army and Baryshnikov’s father was in the Red Army of the communists. But although they were on opposite sides, “a military man is always a military man somehow.”
Baryshnikov has also encountered real people like the general. “When I first arrived in France, I met a lot of people like that in Paris in the mid-’70s — those leftovers from the pre-proletariat Russia. People who the Bolsheviks and Red Army threw out of the country, and they all settled in London or Prague or most of them went to France, and a lot of them to Paris, taking any odd jobs. Like my character is a writer. He writes about the history of the First World War and Civil War for all kinds of publishing houses. Some people drive taxis or try to be farmers.”
Of course Barysnhikov never had to drive a taxi after leaving the Soviet Union. “Although I don’t live in my country of my birth, I never really felt that sadness or nostalgia about the country which I left.”
Baryshnikov was born in Latvia. He lived in Russia for 10 years and defected to Canada in 1974, when he was 26. The idea of living outside one’s country by force (whether by another’s hand or your own) is not a stretch for him. Nor is speaking Russian. Nor even, I imagine, is having a young woman fall in love with him.
“It’s a bit of a classic case,” says Baryshnikov, “old man and young woman, the irony of war and immigration that throw these people into this relationship. Both of them being wounded in many respects personally and politically, and somehow they found each other for a very short time. That’s more or less what the story is about.”
For a second time, Baryshnikov briefly sums up In Paris. He delivers his thoughts in neat packages, especially when asked straightforward questions about the play, the director, his co-star. But then an open-ended question lands in his lap, leaving him room to maneuver and deliver streams of consciousness. He zigzags around topics from justifying his daily glass of wine to wondering what separates the “really good from the just good.”
“I dance pretty much all my life,” he says. “The more I dance, the less I understand what works and what doesn’t. You cannot seriously teach a person how to perform. Of course, you could go to acting school, circus school, singing, playing instrument, dancing. But finally, you are alone, and people who are very successful, they are very special. You have to really love it more than anything.
“Number one, be so critical to yourself and your craft and your place in it. Work on it every day. It’s kind of tedious sometimes. But you have to do it. Today I have to find one or one and a half hours to go and do my bar stretches and run around, and I will sweat. And in my mind, I did something [so] that I can have a glass of wine in the evening and say, well I deserved it.” But, laughing, he adds that it’s “kind of a guilt thing.”
Regaining his matter-of-factness, he continues, “But seriously, I don’t know what makes some people really good, or some people just good.” The really good artist “acted, or danced, somebody played or sang, and they’re somebody who can really be remembered for the rest of your life. What separates them? It’s a mystery, and I don’t know. I will always remember my first and serious influences in art. It stays with you for all these years. I remember that awesome excitement to see somebody in movies or playing violin or dancing or a great theater actor or a beautiful painting. Your skin crawls from excitement. How the hell it’s done.”
Dmitry Krymov, the director of In Paris, was certain that the larger-than-life dancer was the right man for the lead role. “I met this director on a social occasion a few years ago, and he approached me with this project,” Baryshnikov says. “He hadn’t seen me perform on stage, or in dance, or in theater ever. But he felt, observing me or something, that this role would fit me, my natural way. I knew his work from the videotapes. I took this chance.”
For someone who has been hailed as one of the greatest ballet dancers in history, Baryshnikov has kept moving into additional arenas as well. This is not his first play. According to him, it’s his fourth or fifth experience. He appeared in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis on Broadway,Georgian director Rezo Gabriadze’s Forbidden Christmas, JoAnne Akalaitis’s Beckett Shorts at the New York Theatre Workshop.
And sometimes, dancing sneaks back into the act. “[In this show] there is a lot of movement,” says Baryshnikov. “There’s even a little dance. Alexei Ratmansky is a wonderful Russian choreographer who works with American Ballet Theatre. There are a few minutes of episodic little dance, but this is key for the end of the show. I don’t think it’s that foreign for me being on stage as a dancer or as an actor. I feel as comfortable, or uncomfortable, being in front of the audience in dance or acting.”
Whatever form of art Baryshnikov engages in, what he seems most interested in is reaching new heights of success. He puts challenges in front of him, plays with discomfort, and leaps ahead.
“When you put yourself in an area which you’re not 100% sure you can do, you know you have the capacity to conquer it. But you don’t know because maybe you don’t have a formal education about it, or you jump on stage with a few actors who were child actors. It’s a bit of a pressure. I think it’s very exciting because you’re stretching yourself and your horizons as a performer.
“When I come back to my bread and butter, dancing, I am a different man. My eyes are wider open. I have more to say on stage. Compared to my generation, [today] they are better dancers than our generation technically. But in a lot of cases, they rarely have something to say. Now it is a different sociopolitical climate, different social and moral values. Art seduces you, comforts you and finally punishes you with its demands. That’s why being in the arts is such an unpredictable journey from exaltation to the heat; there’s a lot of questioning, frustration, and a lot of extraordinary joyous moments.”
A phone rings. Baryshnikov answers it. His son is calling. Baryshnikov has four children, from ages 17 to 31. He audibly beams as he discusses his children.
“We are really very lucky,” he says. “They are very decent and normal people. We never pushed them into any direction or the arts. We give them very much the American way, carte blanche. Luckily, we could afford private school and college. We’ll see what kind of people they grow up to be. We’re close, and I’m very proud of them.”
Fatherhood is just one more role Baryshnikov loves.
In Paris, presented by Broad Stage. Opens April 11. Plays Wed.-Fri. 7:30 pm; Sat. 2 pm and 7:30 pm; Sun. 2 pm; Mon. April 16 7:30 pm. Through April 21. Tickets: $50-175. 1310 11th Street, Santa Monica. www.TheBroadStage.com. 310-434-3200.
***All In Paris production photos by Maria Baranova