Dancer-actor Mikhail Baryshnikov

Considered one of the greatest dancers of his generation, Baryshnikov reflects on playing the title role in the multimedia adaptation of Man in a Case.

A household name even to non-ballet devotees, Mikhail Baryshnikov is often cited as one of the greatest ballet dancers in history. He began studying his craft in his native Latvia and ultimately joined the Kirov, dancing leading roles created for him. After defecting from the then-Soviet Union, he became a star with the American Ballet Theater, where he later served as artistic director. Baryshnikov co-founded the White Oak Dance Project and launched an arts center in New York. He's also danced and/or acted in movies and on TV, making his film debut and winning an Oscar nod for his role in The Turning Point. He's next up in the stage adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Man in a Case.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Mikhail Baryshnikov has received just about every honor I think an artist can receive, but he’s never rested on his laurels. He keeps challenging himself, gravitating now to what might be called experimental theater.

He’s currently in Los Angeles playing the title role in “Man in a Case,” a multimedia adaptation of two short stories about love and loss by Anton Chekhov. Let’s take a look first at a scene from “Man in a Case,” in which Byelikov, a repressed schoolmaster, takes out his frustration by dismissing two students.

[Clip from "Man in a Case"]

Tavis: Would that be a fair description of what you’re doing here, experimental theater?

Mikhail Baryshnikov: Well it is sort of American avant garde. There’s two directors, Annie-B Parsons and Paul Lazar are known artists who are in the last 20-plus years sort of developing their style of presenting stories.

They always look for a piece of literature which could be open.

Let’s say this is two short stories of Chekhov; let’s – Chekhov knows of his big plays like “Cherry Orchard,” “Seagull,” “Uncle Vanya,” et cetera, which is probably more difficult to adapt and to get, to present something new in them.

Short stories, because they are so short, they allow directors like that go in and interpret interior of their heroes, their personalities, like this Byelikov. We know very little about him; that he’s – not about his family, his education.

He’s teaching rare languages, like ancient Greek, and his behavior seems very conservative. All these sort of political evidence, kind of evident in his behavior, and that allowed the directors go in and illuminate by the different media, like movement, sound effects, video, et cetera, et cetera.

Tavis: I want to talk in a moment, Mikhail, about the multimedia aspect of it, but let me back up for a second, and I think I know the answer, but for you, why Chekhov? There are many who believe he’s the best playwright ever, of course, but -

Baryshnikov: Well it just happened, because we developed this in Connecticut, in Hartford Stage, this new director, Darko Tresnjak, gave me sort of carte blanche to develop something that particular, his first season in his position.

Well it’s like putting a tree, or a building a house, for a person who are actually interested in the theater.

Chekhov is a legendary author. It’s like for great actors to play Shakespeare once in a while, yeah?

Tavis: Mm-hmm.

Baryshnikov: Chekhov, especially for Russians, it’s my mother tongue. I grew up reading Chekhov in my tender age in school. One of those short stories was actually “Man in a Case,” that first part.

I don’t know why. It was written in the end of 19th century, 1880s, if I’m not mistaken -yeah, probably. More 100 years ago.

It’s so relevant, because it’s all about, as you say, in a universal kind of situation, when you speak about love, about ethics of it. It’s about responsibility; it’s about self-examination and duties of a man, and fears. It’s really, that’s a classic theme. It could have been written yesterday.

Tavis: Yeah. Let me go inside the production for a second. Either of these stories, “Man in a Case,” either of these stories would have been too short, so you sort of weaved these two stories together. Give me a sense of what that was about, and how that decision was made.

Baryshnikov: I suggested to the Hartford Stage that, and I suggested to the directors, because I knew them socially and I admired their work from afar. After first meeting, we realized, of course, that the “Man in a Case” would be too short for the full evening; it should be at least an hour.

Because they worked with Chekhov before, they suggested “About Love,” which was, will be bridged, as you realize that the whole construction of the play, actors sitting around a table talking turkey, (laughter) and then it comes into the play.

Then after the first part, they come back to the table, and the character who died, actually, comes alive again, as an actor, and introducing the second story. That’s how they bridged these two stories together.

Tavis: It was fascinating for me – let me back up and say I suspect that any fan of yours who comes to see you in anything hopes that you’re going to do some dancing.

Baryshnikov: Well I did little bit.

Tavis: Yeah, you did a little bit; you did (laughter) very, very -

Baryshnikov: It’s never enough for them, Tavis. (Laughter) Never enough.

Tavis: Yeah, I know, for your fans it’s never enough, but you’re okay with that, obviously.

Baryshnikov: Yeah, you want a 66 years old man dance all evening. (Laughter) That’s what they want.

Tavis: But you could still do it if you wanted to though, couldn’t you? Could you still do it?

Baryshnikov: Of course I can. And sometimes I go on stage and I – recently, a few months ago, dance with Mark Morris dance company new piece, which I was part of in the evening, and had a great time.

Of course there’s different kind of dance, and I have to work, the people whom I work with, like Mark, for example, they know exactly how to use me. You cannot dance physically certain things.

But look at tango dancers or flamenco or Japanese classical theater. You can, if you’re smart enough and you collaborate with the right choreographers, you could really dance your age, I say.

There’s a lot of examples to it – Martha Graham, and there’s (unintelligible) and Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris himself. Because they are choreographers, they know their physicality. They know what not to do and not to show, and how to use your body smartly.

Tavis: I had Chita Rivera here not too long ago -

Baryshnikov: Oh, Chita.

Tavis: – who’s still dancing her age, as you put it.

Baryshnikov: Incredible. Well, she is -

Tavis: She knows how to dance her age.

Baryshnikov: That’s a timeless artist, it’s incredible.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Where I was going with that initially, though, was how interesting it is – I don’t want to say weird, but interesting it is to sit in the audience, as I did the other night, and watch you play these character, this character, who is so – my word, not yours – so muted, so staid, so this, and the person playing him has always been like this (motions).

That’s when you know you’re a good actor, when you can husband all of that.

Baryshnikov: Well that’s the challenge, that’s the challenge -

Tavis: That’s the challenge, yeah.

Baryshnikov: – trying to get into the skin of that character.

Tavis: Right.

Baryshnikov: I was, always was fascinated by classical theater, Russian theater. I grew up, of course, in Latvia first and then in Russia 10 years, and those 10 years in Russia especially, I had an access to receive the best of the Russian theater – Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Miller, some American theater.

I thought it’s a magic when the actor are saying something. It’s such a revealing form of art, such a transparent and good actors, they’re such powerful individuals. I always kind of dreamt that one day I will open my mouth on stage.

Tavis: In L.A. we are, I think, blessed, and I think we can use that word, we are blessed more and more to be exposed to these brilliant and wonderful productions.

I mean, this is not New York, we are not Broadway. We’re in Los Angeles, on the left coast, the West Coast, but I think more and more we’re getting exposed to the kind of stuff that is making the culture in this city even more rich.

But when you’re on Broadway in New York or traveling around the country, versus being in L.A., is there something you want to tell me about performing in Los Angeles?

Baryshnikov: In the last few years, this is my third working at the Broad Stage, and this is extraordinary institution, in my view. It’s a lovely theater. I love that area. It’s really comforting.

But in general, look at how many theaters opened in the last few years in Los Angeles. There’s suddenly two modern dance companies – BodyTraffic, Benjamin Millepied project, an L.A. project, and they are performing in New York, in Paris, travel around the country, and I think there is audience. I know there is audience. I could feel it.

Tavis: You, as I said, have won just about, received just about every major award there is, and yet you keep pushing yourself to innovate, to create, to try different things. What’s that all about?

Baryshnikov: You don’t measure life by receiving awards. I’m flattered and I’m deeply honored to receive something like Kennedy Center honors or Legion d’Honneur of France.

It is I’m afraid to get bored with myself, that’s number one. Second one, second point, my day job, in a way, it’s my center in New York, and I really, when I run that center, and I am perform the same time, keeps me alive.

Keeps me understand what’s needs of the young artist. Not necessarily young; in middle age, in old age, what their needs are, what are, in the sense, New York City.

I had a kind of strange relationship with, always with New York City, with total love affair in the beginning in ’70s, then retreat during the kind of conservatives of politics and real estate and business came, and now I am again kind of fighting for the justice to the city, to open the city for the artists. (Laughter)

For art education, for kids and minorities, and kids’ art education, the education per se, which is very important. That’s the future of our country.

Tavis: Tell me more, since you referenced it, tell me more about the work that you’re doing or hope to do through your center specifically.

Baryshnikov: Well we were trying to open possibilities for young people who are, want to be artists, from art colleges, from the young choreographers, young people who dream to become playwright and photograph, artist, musician.

We are giving opportunity for workshops, cooperative processes. We worked with the different – it’s international center, we work with governments from Europe and elsewhere to bring people – because all people around the world want to come to United States to create.

Because it’s such a jolt, such an extraordinary inspiration when I speak in England or in Germany or France or Australia, South America, people New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, they feel, they want to experience that admiration to American culture.

Actually, American foreign policies, more and more, especially with Obama administration, how just people’s heads come up, people’s chins, when they speak about our president. It’s really, I’m very proud.

Tavis: I want to go back to something you said a moment ago about these young people that you work with, and you meant young in terms of inexperience and young also in terms of age, just people who want to see their artistic efforts burgeon and grow.

But I want to talk specifically about the really young people, those who are school age, and what you make of the fact, and what you ultimately think the price will be that we will pay as a nation for not exposing these young people to the arts in the way that you were in a child in Russia.

You talked about earlier the fact that you were reading Chekhov and exposed, you were exposed to great art as a child. I fear, personally, that there’s a huge price this country’s going to pay by denying these young people in school today access to arts programs of all sorts. But your thoughts?

Baryshnikov: Well divinity of art, it’s such a mystery. How to convince people on the Hill in Washington that no matter how much money you can spend on education and art education especially, that it implants, it directs a young person for the rest of their lives, and always in the most humane and positive and dignified manner.

Somehow, you cannot put it on paper. It is not a seed which you put in earth and expect next day to be a flower. It takes. It’s not water and a drain. You invest into the future, and that’s how young people become human in best sense of it – through the great experience of listening a Müller symphony or to see a great play by Tennessee Williams, experience something in a ballet, in a film.

But at their age of 10, 11, 12, 13, that’s the, it’s much more difficult to start your education in your twenties, let’s say. Sometimes it’s almost too late.

Tavis: At this point in your life, as you reflect on what art has taught you about your own humanity and the humanity of others, what can you share with me in that regard?

Baryshnikov: Well I kind of had a strange childhood, not kind of very conventional. I discovered theater when I was probably nine years old. In fact, much earlier, because my mother was dragging me at probably I was five, six or so to see opera and ballet.

She was a very simple woman. She was not university educated. She came from center of Russia, from Volga River to Riga, Latvia, as a wife of a Soviet military officer.

We were (unintelligible) son of the occupant. I knew in very early years of my life that we are not invited here. It’s not my country, it’s not my language. We don’t – somehow, like, nobody would try and say, okay, we’re in this country because Josef Stalin sent us right here.

He just occupied those three countries, three Baltic countries, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia. But, and on the streets it was, everything was very evident when I, my father, I was walking with my father and mother, and he was wearing military garb.

The way Latvian people look at us, what the hell you’re doing here, why you’re here, I didn’t had any answers, but I knew something is wrong here. It’s later on now I am looking that I’m actually glad that Stalin sent us there, because I looked into the politics, into Russian politics.

From a childhood’s eyes, I really understand certain things, what anti-Semitism is, what’s the situation between Latvians and the Russians, what are our armies doing there.

There’s a statue of freedom which actually proudly was facing West – just interesting dichotomy. (Laughter) But art, my mother passed away when I was like 10, 11, and I discovered theater, and it was my home.

My father remarried, and those last few years when I was 14, 15, 16, and I left to Russia, I was like a sponge. My homework was like, I was very mediocre student with geometry or arithmetics, but I liked literature, I liked history of it, I liked all dance elements of it.

Acting, and et cetera. I felt that I grew up much faster. I really realized that there is not always a relationship between people are given, there’s sometimes somebody’s wrong and somebody’s right for a different kind of reason or it’s politics or it’s love, or it’s just craziness.

Because those people are, sometimes we are portrayed in the theater, in dance, in the music, in all those elements; they’re brooding in your mind, in your heart. When I arrive, actually, as a provincial young man into Russia and I was accepted this incredible institution that now it’s academy – it was a choreographic school, Vaganova, it’s a very famous teacher – I was on my feet.

I was ready to inhale the old real culture of Russia. I understood already that was a lot of start of political processes and (unintelligible) Brodsky (unintelligible) in the political, it was an era of Leonid Brezhnev, of course, of very conservative, very stale, very brutal, in a way, but same time, I received a free education which I would never and ever received anywhere else.

Tavis: Yeah. I could talk to you for hours. As a matter of fact, the last time Mikhail Baryshnikov was on this program he came on for one show and the conversation was so rich and so delightful that it turned into not one night, but two nights, and I so want to do that now.

I’m tempted to do that now, but I know that I need to protect his voice, because he’s got some more shows to do here in town, thankfully. So I’m going to do you a favor and let him save his voice for when you go see him in “Man in a Case.”

He will have some pipes to work with on the stage. He is, again, starring now in “Man in a Case” here in L.A. at the Broad Stage out in Santa Monica. If you can get a ticket to go see him, you should definitely do yourself a favor and go see this icon while he is in the city of Angels.

There might be a voice that you’ll recognize somewhere in this play. Thank you for the opportunity.

Baryshnikov: Thank you.

Tavis: I appreciate it. Good to have you on.

Baryshnikov: Thank you.

Tavis: All the best to you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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  • Toni Brink

    I sure did enjoy this interview. It was educational in a large and meaningful way. So much wisdom was shared because of the guest’s interesting experiences, viewpoints and integrity!

  • Judi Grunstra

    Thank you for this opportunity to be reminded why Barishnikov is still a vital contributor to the world of dance and theater. He is one of the greatest dancers of the 20th century, without a doubt.

  • Richard Barone

    He looks ten years younger than his age. 1. Dostoyevsky was a novelist and philosopher and wrote nothing for the theater. 2. Art education should begin at 10, 11, 12, 13, and in the 20s it’s “almost too late.” This might be true for dancers who must begin at an early age, but not for artists and writers who don’t have the ability to create until they become adults. Like Red Skelton used to say, if a person is going to be an artist, there is no wall big enough that they can’t break through. 3. It is interesting that he refers to the era of Brezhnev’s reign (1964-82) as “very conservative…stale…brutal.” Baryshnikov’s very education was very conservative, though he didn’t refer to it as such. He should be thankful that Russian culture was not totally abolished by the Russian Revolution, which was in fact philosophically liberal and a revolt against the establishment and conservative thinking.

Last modified: May 3, 2014 at 2:36 pm