Michael Baryshnikov. left, is about to perform in his first play, "In… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angles…)
NEW YORK — Try following Mikhail Baryshnikov up a flight of stairs sometime. He doesn't run or even leap. He glides, as if he is as at home in the air as he is on the ground. It's like trailing a 12-year-old boy. Or an impala.
Baryshnikov knows these stairs well, taking them every day he is in New York. They belong to his baby, the Baryshnikov Arts Center, which stages productions by up-and-comers and such established artists as Peter Brook, Robert Wilson and Philip Glass.
"I'm very proud of this project," he says relaxing, as much as he can relax, at a conference table. He's wearing a short-sleeved shirt and dark pants with white piping. He's obviously fit, but not in a flashy or freakish way. "We deliver good work. I think New York needs a place like this."
This place, however, will not be a venue for his own ongoing project, "In Paris," which was conceived and in part developed here. It was staged in Helsinki last April, the Netherlands last summer, Paris in the fall and Tel Aviv in early winter. New Yorkers won't see it, but L.A. audiences will, starting Wednesday at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.
What they'll see is not an airborne but an earthbound Baryshnikov. The most celebrated dancer of his time does very little of what made him a star, though that would be difficult at his age — 64 — anyway. This sort of faded glory plays into his character, a Russian general exiled in Paris during the 1930s who has a May-December romance with a young Russian waitress (played by Anna Sinyakina).
The story was adapted from a short piece by Russian Nobel Prize-winner Ivan Bunin and directed by Dmitry Krymov, a painter and set designer who has his own experimental theater company. Neither he nor Baryshnikov is the least bit concerned about not giving audiences what they want.
"No, this is not my problem," says Krymov, seated earlier at the same conference table, speaking Russian through an interpreter. He is most people's idea of a Russian artist, with a Byronic sweep of graying, long hair and a resolute, uncompromising air. "Either we will win them over or they will leave dissatisfied. Either, or. It's like boxing. Somebody has to win."
Baryshnikov takes a less oppositional but similarly hardheaded view, saying, "People who saw me in the '70s and '80s in white tights dancing classical repertoire, they don't exist anymore. I'm in my 60s, which means they have to be my age or older. I have a new audience when I perform. They've never seen me in classical repertoire. In this sense I'm not worried."
Another concern might be the difficulty of the work itself, which has very little dialogue (and it's in Russian) and minimal staging, except for translations that are projected on the actors and backdrop, along with postcards from the period and video. A chorus comments on and adds to the bleak narrative and atmosphere. An exhibition in the foyer leading to the theater acquaints the audience with what life was like for the White Russian military before the revolution, when they were pushed out by the Reds. As the story demonstrates, they were left with nothing but their grand manners and grand memories.
"Loneliness, it is in the story, I wanted it to be in the foreground," Krymov says. "Loneliness, like a constant, permanent headache. He sees this woman, and he sees that she is the pill that can cure his headache."
There are headaches, and then there are other aches. Krymov chose to focus on the former to the exclusion of the latter. He did not include any of the original story's eroticism, specifically a brief nude scene. Baryshnikov, who clearly did not agree with this approach, wonders whether Sinyakina wasn't comfortable with it. At any rate, he never discussed it with Krymov.
"I'm trained to be a good soldier," Baryshnikov says. "With choreographers and partners, I know what my place is. I would never say, 'This way or the highway,' even though I'm the producer. When I'm onstage, I convince myself that his is the only way and the best way. Although internally I may disagree about certain things."
Performers say this sort of thing all the time, just like they say it's all about the work. But Baryshnikov means it. If nothing else, he knew enough to know that this was not his area of expertise, although he has appeared in non-dancing roles onstage ("Metamorphosis"), on film ("Company Business"), and on TV ("Sex and the City").
"He is a very obedient actor, in the best sense," says Krymov, who goes on to say that Baryshnikov didn't lean on his dancing technique. "He put his baggage, his experiences as a ballet dancer, aside. And he turned out to be a very talented straight-drama actor. These are special qualities in a person that have nothing to do with his ballet career. It's like the second parachute. Some people don't even have the one, but he has two."