Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Baryshnikov, still making artistic leaps

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 tombé coupé jetés 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.

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