Q&A: Mikhail Baryshnikov Arrives at the Broad Stage—Without His Dancing Shoes

The world-renowned star is appearing in two Anton Chekhov plays

He may be known for his grand balletic leaps, but Mikhail Baryshnikov is taking on quieter, humbler roles at the Broad Stage beginning Thursday night. Through May 10 he’ll play the title character in two Anton Chekhov short stories—Man in a Case and About Love—which have been adapted by codirectors Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar of Big Dance Theater. The company is known for weaving together dance, music, theater, and video. But if you’re looking for the 66-year-old dance legend to dance…sorry, he does not perform his famous moves here. Nor does he reveal his age (“that’s what Google is for,” he says).

Baryshnikov and the ensemble cast, including Jess Barbagallo, Tymberly Canale, Chris Giarmo, and Aaron Mattocks, use folk dance and other multimedia effects to bring to life these 19th-century tales. The first, Man in a Case, depicts one rigid man’s courtship attempts and the limitations he learns to face; the second, About Love, portrays a man who can’t act on his passionate love for a married woman. We talked with Baryshnikov, who lives in New York City, about storytelling and his own “suitcase” of experience.

Why did these Anton Chekhov stories appeal to you?
Although the two stories are told in a very different way and both characters are utterly dissimilar from each other, there’s an internal thread of unrealized love. Achieving that connectivity was an exciting challenge for all contributors to the production.

What are you conveying through your characters while onstage?
You have to see the show. But to put it in a few words: Good theater should stir up questions in its audience, challenge the way they think. We are certainly trying to achieve that level with this piece, and my hope is that through our process, the universality and relatability of these characters is felt.

How do the dance movements and multimedia effects aid and advance the storytelling?
Again, come and see the show. Annie-B [Parson] and Paul [Lazar] have worked on their language of storytelling for a long time and with a devoted group of collaborators. The movement, the audio effects, the video imagery—it’s not a new realm in the landscape of avant-garde American theater. But these two directors have established a personal approach to creating work that separates them from other theater makers today.

Is there a difference between acting and dancing before a live audience? How do you feel in each type of role?
With any preparation you have to arrive with your suitcase filled with everything you have. Whatever help you can get from the creators of the project, any body memory experience (bad or good) you can draw upon from previous projects—all of this informs the process a great deal. The more you work, the bigger your suitcase becomes, and in turn the better you can be. But of course, the demands of each project are unique. For example, I was just working with [director] Bob Wilson on The Old Woman, and it required a completely different approach in terms of collaboration and performance preparation. At the end of the day, adaptability is key.

What are your favorite spots to visit while in L.A.?
Sadly, my rehearsal and performance schedule don’t leave time for city exploring—a warm meal after the show is about all I can manage. This will be my third time at the Broad, and it’s always a pleasure to return. I feel very comfortable when I perform there; it’s like coming home. The surrounding area is wonderful, too, with the energy brought by the [Santa Monica College] students—it’s a very dynamic and creative atmosphere.