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Ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov reflects on his ‘In Paris’ stage role at Berkeley Rep

April 10, 2012

Mikhail Baryshnikov stars in "In Paris" at the Chailot National Theater in Paris. Bertrand Langlois/Agence France-Presse - Getty Images

By Karen D’Souza

Posted: 04/10/2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
Mikhail Baryshnikov dances one last pas de deux with romance “In Paris.”

The king of classical ballet dances only at the very end of this melancholy love story, but for devotees of his work that will be more than enough to make “In Paris” a sellout. Created by the adventurous Russian director Dmitry Krymov, this 80-minute multimedia affair, presented in French and Russian with English supertitles, makes its regional premiere April 25-May 13 at Berkeley Rep.

A wistful piece inspired by Ivan Bunin’s 1940 short story, it is steeped in the poetry of exile, the mingled grief and desire that lead one Russian emigre to cling to another, trying to banish darkness in the city of lights.

“From day to day, from year to year, you wait in secret for only one thing — that moment when you’ll stumble onto happy love,” wrote Bunin, the first Russian to win a Nobel Prize for literature. “Ultimately it is this hope alone that enables you to live.”

The legendary dancer stars as a haughty former general of the White Russian army who falls for a poor young waitress (played by Anna Sinyakina) and grasps for one last shot at happiness as time slips away. The role reminds the ballet star of his father, who was a military man and a stern, foreboding figure.

“I wouldn’t say the general was inspired by my father, but I drew on what I remember,” says Baryshnikov, 64, “some of his

Mikhail Baryshnikov 1978 Richard Avedon Foundation

The story also echoes his own life. Baryshnikov, who often goes by the nickname Misha, was born in 1948 in Riga, Latvia. He began dancing at 9, entered the school of the Kirov Ballet at 15 and danced for that company until 1974 when, at age 26, he defected from Russia. Although he soon became world-famous, he knows what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land. And he knows the sting of loneliness and fear of the unknown.

“People say it’s just the Russian temperament. I don’t know, for me life is … complicated.”

Indeed, he is quick to point out that “In Paris” is no bodice-ripper, drenched in lust and sweat. Krymov wanted to focus on the existentialism of the story, instead of its heat: A kissed hand. A long glance. A sigh. That’s the kind of body language in this starkly experimental work.

For the record, critics have noted that Parisian audiences seemed a tad put off, responding with “barely polite applause.” After its Berkeley run, the show makes its way to New York as part of the Lincoln Center Festival this summer.

“It is an extremely romantic short story,” says the dancer in his lyrical accent, “but

Michael Baryshnikov. left, is about to perform in his first play, "In Paris," directed by Dmitry Krymov, at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, Calif. (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times)

remember, nothing happens. It is all in the details. This is a love story between two troubled people. Dmitry is not at all sentimental.”

By contrast, Baryshnikov seems to do everything with great passion. Although he has been giving interviews since the ’70s, he still finds joy in conversation, holding forth on everything from arts education to political history in a brief phone chat from the Baryshnikov Arts Center in Manhattan. Friendly but also mysterious, he diverts attention from himself to the issues about which he cares deeply, such as incubating new works from experimental minds like Krymov.

“I am a fan; I have seen all of his work,” Misha says. “His is a very pure aesthetic.”

Championing the arts center, which features dance, music and film as well as drama (the Wooster Group is the resident theater company), has become one of Baryshnikov’s obsessions.

“It’s our responsibility to support the arts,” he says simply. “Not to say, this is good or this is bad, but to say this is art, and it should be supported.”

Lest that seem a bit dry, rest assured that his husky purr makes just about anything sound sexy. From his early role in the classic dance flick “The Turning Point” (for which he garnered an Oscar nomination) to his recent turn as Carrie’s brooding artist-lover, the Russian, on “Sex and the City,”Baryshnikov always has combined physical virtuosity with penetrating intelligence and ineffable star quality. An iconic figure even to those of us who don’t know Petipa from Petco, Misha has always fueled his career with red-hot charisma. Romances with actresses Jessica Lange and Liza Minnelli and ballerinas Gelsey Kirkland and Natalya Makarova have added to the mythos.

Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1998. (Fred R. Conrad-The New York Times)

“There is no one like him,” says dancer Ricardo Bustamante, who danced with him at New York’s American Ballet Theatre. “He is a phenomenon. You can’t get enough Baryshnikov. He has always been an inspiration for dancers to take their work as far as it can go.”

If you are surprised that there is so little dance in “In Paris,” consider that Baryshnikov has always leapt from one genre to another without worrying how he will land. Even in dance, he has embraced the new, from Twyla Tharp to Mark Morris. Not one to rest on his reputation, he also finds it amusing that many 20-somethings know him only from ‘“Sex and the City.”

“He has so much courage — he is a real bull,” Bustamante says. “Once you have danced for him, you always dance under his eye.”

Of course, to dance aficionados, he is almost a god, one who never failed to make ballet seem macho.

“He is the No. 1 man who revolutionized dance,” says Bustamante, now ballet master and principal dancer at San Francisco Ballet. “He wanted to dance everything, to explore everything. He made sure there are no boundaries in dance.”

Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone dubbed Baryshnikov an artist forever “in fierce pursuit of complicated truths.”

“His technical abilities were breathtaking and his artistry exquisite,” notes Lauren Jonas, artistic director of Diablo Ballet. “He also had the rare talent of crossing all genres, from television to movies to stage.”

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Anna Sinyakina perform at Berkeley Rep in a special presentation of In Paris. Photo by Ana Akartseva

The actor-dancer shows off that versatility with “In Paris,” which leaps from music and mime to video, in a gauzy black-and-white riff on ’30s Paris. The lovers are haunted by the fleeting nature of happiness as time nips at their heels. Ironically it is when death parts them that the role of the general seems to converge with the Baryshnikov mystique.

Only in the closing moments of the show does the actor turn to his primary art, tapping into insights on mortality and the tragicomic nature of life, and making the dance soar.

Indeed, some critics see the final moments of “In Paris” as a comment on the transience of the dancer’s art, a discipline in which the command of the craft increases even as the body declines. That irony makes the choreography shine.

“The play offers a fleeting glimpse of Baryshnikov as a matador struggling with death,” the Financial Times noted, “conjuring images of bravura ballets.”

For the record, Misha still attacks the barre every day. Some have said he now defies age the way he once defied gravity. Unlike the general, he prefers to look forward, championing new work and new artists at a time in life when many would be content to bask in the glow of the past. Discipline and rigor remain constant companions.

“Nobody is born a dancer,” he once wrote.” “You have to want it more than anything.”

Contact Karen D’Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her stories at and follow her at

In Paris

Adapted from the short story by Ivan Bunin

Composition and Direction by Dmitry Krymov
A Production of Baryshnikov Arts Center, Dmitry Krymov Laboratory

& Russian Century Foundation an association with Korjaamo Theater, Helsinki
Special Presentation | Roda Theatre
April 25–May 13, 2012

Told in French and Russian with English supertitles

Running time: 1 hour and 20 minutes, no intermission

Copyright 2012 San Jose Mercury News. All rights reserved.


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