One of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s hallmarks is an intense curiosity. Widely considered the greatest dancer of his generation, he trained in ballet in the former Soviet Union before defecting to Canada in 1974. Since then, he’s been artistic director of American Ballet Theatre; performed in theater, TV, and film; and founded the Baryshnikov Arts Center, a multipurpose organization in New York City that showcases performing artists from all disciplines.
December 5 through 22, Baryshnikov comes to Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre with Man in a Case, an experimental work adapted by Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar from Anton Chekhov’s writing. The show incorporates theater, movement, music, video, and other elements to tell two of Chekhov’s short stories—the first about a teacher crippled by conventionality in turn-of-the-century Russia, the second about a man who falls in love with a married woman.
“They’re very quirky and very different from Chekhov’s plays,” Baryshnikov says. “With this conservative person who’s against any kind of progressive thinking, there are parallels to what’s happening now in this country. Because that story was a bit short and about a tragic and unresolved love affair, they suggested I bring in the other story about love.”
Of all his acting roles—including on the final season of Sex and the City—avant-garde theater seems to interest him most. When he first arrived in New York with only rudimentary English, he found he appreciated experimental productions more than Shakespeare or Eugene O’Neill: “I could have gone to see Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet, but it didn’t make much sense to me. Avant-garde theater was so arresting that I stayed, even though half or three-quarters of what was said passed me by.”
Baryshnikov, 65, continues to dance, which he says is easier now than it was five years ago because he’s “in better shape and a little lighter and a bit smarter about it.” He also spends much of his time working on behalf of his arts center. “In Europe,” he says, “government spends so much on art and art education, and there’s incredible theater in Poland, Bulgaria, Russia, and Scandinavia. Here we are much more conservative. The people who wrote the Constitution never thought about art. How to protect your freedom is one thing, but how to educate your children is another.”
He has no plan to stop performing anytime soon: “Where I am right now—it is scary at times, but that’s the way I like it, I guess. I scare myself, and then I try and overcome it.”
Tickets ($45 to $105) are available at shakespearetheatre.org.
This article appears in the December 2013 issue of Washingtonian.