Mikhail Baryshnikov may be the world’s most famous dancer, but it’s been many decades since he was just a dancer. In 1978, barely four years after defecting from the Kirov Ballet, he was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor for his role as Yuri Kopeikine in “The Turning Point.” Since then he’s starred as Russian artist Aleksandr Petrovsky in “Sex and the City,” taking Carrie Bradshaw to Paris so she could be rescued there by Big. He’s performed in a Broadway adaptation of Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”; he’s done Samuel Beckett with director JoAnne Akalaitis; he’s worked with Robert Wilson.
These days his 9-to-5 day job is as artistic director of the Baryshnikov Arts Center in Lower Manhattan, which he founded in 2005, and which he describes as “probably the most important thing I’ve done in my life, creatively, and politically, if you want.” But he says he still loves experimental theater, explaining “Man in a Case,” the Chekhov project Baryshnikov Productions and Big Dance Theater are bringing to the Cutler Majestic Theatre on Tuesday, under the auspices of ArtsEmerson. “It’s not the traditional psychological theater,” he says. “There’s a lot of movement, which is another attraction in my view, considering my background.”
The project is not a Chekhov play but an adaptation of two stories — part of a trilogy — that the Russian master published in 1898. The trilogy begins with two hunters, Burkin and Ivan Ivanych, sleeping over in a friend’s barn and telling stories. “Man in a Case” is about their town’s former Greek teacher, Belikov, who, Burkin explains, wore galoshes and carried an umbrella, even in the warmest weather. In every way Belikov shuts himself out from real life, “lest something unfortunate come of it.” Then the town tries to set him up with a newly arrived Ukrainian woman, Barbara. In the second story, “About Love,” the hunters’ friend Alekhin tells of his love for a married woman, Anna. He, too, is in a case of sorts, since he can’t share his feelings with her until it’s too late.
Baryshnikov plays both Belikov and Alekhin, opposite Tymberly Canale as Barbara and Anna.
“Man in a Case” — the entire 75-minute piece has the same name as the first story — began life in Hartford last March, after Hartford Stage’s artistic director, Darko Tresnjak, commissioned Baryshnikov to do a Chekhov project. It was Baryshnikov’s idea to bring in the husband-and-wife team of Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson, whose work he had seen at the Baryshnikov Arts Center.
Parson describes Big Dance Theater, which she and Lazar founded in 1991, as “an Obie-winning, Betsy-winning company that combines writing and literature and plays with choreographic ideas.” Over the past 10 years, Big Dance Theater has worked with everything from Euripides and Stravinsky to Agnès Varda and Richard Nixon’s Oval Office tapes. In “Man in a Case,” Parson says, “the balance between dance and theater is tipped toward theater, with dance supporting it.”
Baryshnikov chose the first tale; he says that Chekhov’s stories were “must-read” material when he was growing up and that “Man in a Case” was particularly popular. He adds that he was drawn to Belikov by the character’s eccentricity. When it became clear that one story wasn’t going to be long enough for a full evening, Parson proposed supplementing it with “About Love.” “I was very moved by that story,” she says, “and I liked the idea of contrasting these two different love stories, or anti-love stories.”
There was, of course, an irony in casting Baryshnikov as the uptight Belikov. “I think that’s part of the fun,” Parson allows. “Limitations are tremendously fertile, and I think the audience enjoys the fact that the world’s most famous dancer is playing someone who doesn’t want to dance, figuratively or literally. So we put that into the piece.”
Lazar says of Belikov, “He tries to hide in his shell like a hermit crab or a snail. And then Barbara’s brother, Kovalenko, calls him a spider. These descriptions are clues to a physicality that could express the character. So we felt that was a great starting point for somebody like Baryshnikov.”
But Baryshnikov was just the starting point for Big Dance Theater. Lazar points out that the music, movement, sound, and video were all part of the rehearsal process from day one. The set, he says, “stands a little bit outside of time. It’s only the elements that are needed to tell the story: just a door, a bed, and a table, and then this beautiful back curtain that receives video.”
Lazar describes the time frame as “not one of those contemporizations, like taking a Shakespeare play and setting it in 1929 Chicago. It doesn’t respect one single historical era. What it respects is the feeling of the moment, and it will draw on any number of eras in order to make the feeling of that particular moment really sing.” So when Belikov and Barbara are being pushed around the stage in a wicker chair on wheels, it’ll be Carly Simon singing “Coming Around Again,” though the soundtrack also includes contemporary and traditional Russian music.
The costumes are also eclectic, merging contemporary American with traditional Russian. For the video element, Parsons says, video designer Jeff Larson, sound designer Tei Blow, and set designer Peter Ksander “got really interested in surveillance, because Belikov was a paranoiac. They imagined that Belikov would have his whole apartment bugged, and he would have surveillance cameras on his door, and Tei miked the door so that all the locks of the door make a lot of sound. And then we found this really old Soviet movie of ‘Man in a Case’ that was done in 1939, and I loved the faces, I loved the acting. So we borrowed some found footage from that.”
So what do these stories about love have to tell us? Parson thinks that in the first one, “Belikov is actually a victim of the town. He knew himself very well, and the town didn’t respect that. In ‘About Love,’ it’s part of a pattern, the protagonist does what he’s supposed to do. He’s supposed to help his father, to go back to the farm and pay off the loans. He’s not supposed to run away with Anna. He’s so full of his sense of obligation that he puts himself out of the flow of the river.”
Baryshnikov says, more succinctly, “It might be that you have to appreciate love and open your heart to it. Both of those characters are very cautious about their feelings. It might be a ‘grab it while it’s available.’ Otherwise you can miss your life.”
Of his own life, he says, “I’m taking theater acting very seriously. I’m practically retired from dance, though sometimes I go on stage in special projects. I have a few ideas still in my mind. But there is only so much time left. We’ll see. You never know what’s around the corner.”
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.