What could possibly be more exciting for a DC theatre-lover than this? Mikhail Baryshnikov, indisputably the best-known classical dancer in the world, has arrived in town. And it’s not a dance that he is bringing us, it’s theatre. And it’s a piece derived from short stories by that most beloved of Russian theatre writers, Anton Chekhov. It’s been put together by a pair prominent in the world of experimental theatre, which will interest the more adventuresome of theatre-goers, yet it’s a text-based linear narrative that more traditional tastes will find satisfying. And it’s at the intimate (451 seat) Lansburgh Theatre. And it’s running for three weeks.
Seriously, what are you waiting for? I’ll pause for a second while you book tickets.
I had the exciting opportunity last week to speak with the great man himself, who introduced himself as “Misha.” According to Misha, “the audience shouldn’t get confused.” Yes, Man in a Case features the most famous dancer in the world, and, yes, “Dance” is in the name of the company that developed it. However, there are only a few dance moves, and, although it will be Misha executing at least some of those, this is definitely theatre, not dance.
Man in a Case, the piece that opens tonight, was commissioned and premiered by Hartford Stage in Connecticut. The adapter/director team consists of Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar, founding members and co-Artistic Directors of the New York City-based Big Dance Theatre.
Both are frequent presences on the New York scene. Parson choreographed Here Lies Love, the David Byrne musical set in a disco that tells the story of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, which recently ended an extended run at The Public Theatre. Lazar is about to open Bodycast, featuring Frances McDormand as the visual artist Suzanne Bocanegra in a piece marketed as “part performance and part essay,” at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival.
I asked Misha a question about whether the piece followed a linear narrative, as opposed to much experimental work. He said that, while he grouped his collaborators Parson and Lazar with contemporaries such as Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman, JoAnne Akalaitis, and The Wooster Group, in this case, the multimedia elements so emblematic of avant-garde theatre are employed to illuminate the story.
Making a distinction between “formal” and “psychological” theatre (the latter presumably being realism-based), he described the former, and this piece, as using different aspects of theatre, what he called “shoots and bells.” In addition to movement, he cited video and sound effects, a “collage of influences.” However, he made clear that this is not the sort of impenetrable, dense work that can send an audience out wondering what it had just witnessed. The piece is most definitely text-driven, it is “not deconstructed at all.” It’s an adaptation of two of Chekhov’s short stories and, he said, the story is very clear, the characters precisely designed. That story is a pair of tales of unrequited love. Marketing material refers to them as “anti-love stories.”
Still, it is clear that Misha is drawn to the experimental. He spoke enthusiastically about the value of avant-garde theatre, how it challenges an audience to engage with a piece in a more active way than more traditional forms of theatre. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that, in his theatre work, he inclines toward the new. After all, as a dancer, he strayed from the classics, and his involvement with contemporary choreographers gave them a visibility that they otherwise might not have achieved. I remember first hearing the name Twyla Tharp when national magazines ran pictures of Misha doing Push Comes to Shove with her in 1976.
Misha told me that one day he may do more traditional theatre. One imagines there have been and will be scads of offers. He’s already been approached to do Uncle Vanya, for instance. He’s “not rejecting” something more “straightforward,” but he believes that, for now, “the avant-garde is the right step for me,” it “invites so many different elements.” Analyzing his interest, he described his “pent up energy” and how it applies to that type of work. The dance background helps, he said, presumably as the abstract and symbolic aspect of heightened movement illuminates the human experience in a way similar to impressionistic forms of theatre.
Misha is currently bouncing back and forth between two theatrical projects. The other is The Old Woman, a collaboration with the aforementioned pillar of the avant-garde, the director Robert Wilson, along with actor Willem Dafoe. A run of that show in London was reviewed by The New York Times in July, another run has just concluded in Paris, and a New York City run is set for June 2014 at Brooklyn Academy of Music. In Dafoe, Misha finds a kindred spirit, whose stage work has centered on experimental groups such as The Wooster Group and Richard Foreman’s Ontological Hysteric Theatre. “He’s great,” Misha says, as he recounted seeing Dafoe’s early film work and remarked that he never thought they would have the chance to work together.
Misha told me that he has always liked Washington, and has always liked performing here. He called it a great privilege to perform at the White House and spoke with appreciation of the historical significance of the city. I couldn’t help feeling, though, that he is happy that certain roles are now in the past, as he spoke of performing The Nutcracker here for “weeks and weeks and weeks.” As he considered his memories of his visits here, he remarked wistfully, “The years are passing very fast.”
In addition to a crowded schedule as a performer, much of Misha’s time is spent in the capacity of Artistic Director of Baryshnikov Arts Center, the foundation and arts complex he opened in 2005. I asked him how that’s going. “Really well,” although it’s been “quite a ride.” He has “a good group, a good team,” they are in “good shape.” However, although he “shouldn’t complain,” he said it’s a lot of work. It’s always a challenge for non-profits, and he’s fund-raising all the time. However, when he sees the results, the performances that occur because of this work, he forgets about “the office hours, the board meetings, the fund-raising.” He’d rather be onstage or in the rehearsal hall, but you “learn to love” the administrative burdens that result in the satisfying artistic achievements, many of which would not have such a prominent platform without his efforts.
I asked him what made him locate BAC in New York City. After all, he could likely have placed it almost anywhere in the world. He talked about arriving in NYC in the mid-70s and falling in love with the city. He said that he wanted to contribute something to the city that he described as having given him a lot. He now lives, not in the city, but in short proximity to it.
That said, Misha also spoke about how the city has changed over the years of his acquaintance with it, how it is “a different story” now, and not in a positive way. Earlier, everyone had “a bit more time to spend, hang out, enjoy life.” Now, the city, he feels, is more conservative and “less friendly to young people.” Describing this change, he mentions economic pressure that he feels would make it “impossible right now” for the young to easily come and spend a summer in the city in a way that was possible before. There was a period, after his initial infatuation with the city, when he cooled on it, but the warmth in his feelings has returned over the last ten or fifteen years.
I asked Misha about his Broadway debut, playing Gregor Samsa in Steven Berkoff’s adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. He said it’s a long story that he had already told to a Washington journalist, presumably Peter Marks, whose profile of Misha in last Sunday’s Post covered that production. Misha told me that, at the time, he did not yet have a “serious command of English,” that he was shy and hesitant about doing the play, that the production was “troubled,” and that maybe it was “premature” to begin his legitimate stage career with a high-stakes, high-profile Broadway production. He certainly hasn’t been back to the Great White Way as an actor since.
The mixed reaction to the production notwithstanding, he told me that he had a great time, that he came to “enjoy the spoken word,” that he “learned how to respect it.” He summed up the experience this way: “I got the bug.” I mentioned that that production had a DC connection in that his sister was played by Madeleine Potter, who worked here, at Folger, Source, and New Playwrights, before going to New York and success on Broadway and in films. “Yes! She is now in London, I think,” Misha said, as he praised the “wonderful actors” who were “very kind” and from whom he “learned a lot,” also mentioning Rene Auberjonois, who played his father and has appeared here at Shakespeare Theatre Company.
“This might be a weird question,” I said, to which Misha replied, “what else is new?” with the good-natured laugh of a man who feels as if he has been asked nearly everything possible, but I guess I found something he hadn’t been asked before:
“Would you have likely made more films if the Cold War hadn’t ended when it did?”
Misha considered the question for a moment, began a response, and interrupted himself to say, “It is a weird question.” He then talked about receiving film scripts, most of which do not interest him. The characters are gangsters or frustrated choreographers. Films are a big commitment, he said, you have to devote at least five or six months to a project (and it’s not as if he doesn’t have a lot going on). He’s “not against cinema.” If some indie project were to come along, the right piece of literature, a role that would fit him, a director whose work he admires, even if it were a project for television, he would be open to it. Circling back to my question, “the fall of the wall and all that,” he makes it clear that he is not particularly interested in doing more political thrillers, that White Nights (the Cold War thriller in which he starred with Gregory Hines in 1985) “was just a project,” that there was no intention for it to continue “in that way” (presumably as the kind of movie franchise which spawns sequels), and that it was “just a moment in my life.”
It was the Cold War that brought Misha’s Father, who served in the Russian military, to Latvia, where Misha was born while it was part of the Soviet Union. Referring to his family as “uninvited guests,” Misha told me that, though he lived there until he was 16, “I never felt that I was home” and that his Russian family was not very welcome there. That is the case “even now.” (He told me that his Mother is buried there.)
Keeping to the subject of movies, I asked him if The Turning Point, his film debut and a role for which he received an Oscar nomination, was the first time he spoke lines. He said it might have been, but he might have done lines first in some TV things around the same time. Being unable to answer the question for sure, he apologized for having “a senior moment.” It is bizarre to think of Mikhail Baryshnikov as “not young” — his voice is so gentle and youthful-sounding, his energy and passion for his work so palpable.
For now, in addition to running BAC, he has “two plays on my shoulders for the next couple of years” as tours of Man in a Case and The Old Woman continue. A couple of other projects are in the works. (He is working with a playwright on a potential new project, for instance.) Although “there is nothing really yet to speak about,” he told me that both embryonic projects are, again, for the theatre. He has the bug, indeed.
Man in a Case is part of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Presentation Series.” This year’s slate began last month with a run of the Baxter Theatre Center’s astounding Mies Julie and will conclude in the Spring with Brief Encounter by Kneehigh Theatre from the UK. STC, since its Harman Hall opened in 2007, has not only used its now-two spaces to expand its season, but also has given us Washingtonians the opportunity to see the kind of international programming that occasionally plays The Kennedy Center, but, more often, entails a trip to New York City. It’s thrilling to be able to see these things without getting on the Acela.
And here’s a tip. When these things come to town and get rave reviews, it’s easy to assume that the tickets will have been snatched up quickly. Sometimes that happens, as with the plays Cate Blanchett has brought to The Kennedy Center. Sometimes, however, that’s not the case. Mies Julie, when I saw it (and was blown away by it) had a lot of empty seats. Looking back, I remember that I didn’t even try to see if seats were available when STC brought Black Watch from National Theatre of Scotland, presuming it sold out. Having just seen the amazing work its director John Tiffany has done with the current Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie, I’m kicking myself that I gave up before even trying.
I haven’t made that mistake with Man in a Case. Nor should you. And Misha ended our conversation saying, “I hope people will come to see it.” In my hope, I have found a remarkably distinguished second.