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Baryshnikov's turn in theater

June 14, 2004
By Mary Ellen Hunt

When most people say the name Baryshnikov, they're talking not about a man, but a cultural phenomenon. He's the dancer whose name is synonymous with ballet and whose defection from Soviet Russia to the West in 1974 made world headlines. He's the star whose eyes gaze out at you from a Movado ad; the Mr. Bigger-than-Big, whom "Sex and the City's" Sarah Jessica Parker left standing in a room at the Plaza Athenee in Paris.

But it's Mikhail Baryshnikov the regular guy, the quietly thoughtful artist interested in making good art, who answers the phone in a hotel room in South Carolina. Despite a reputation for being wary of publicity, once the conversation gets going, he's eager to chat about his latest projects.

The most immediate is a role in "Forbidden Christmas, or the Doctor and the Patient," a play by Georgian puppeteer Rezo Gabriadze, which Cal Performances presents this week at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Playhouse. A fantastical fable set in a small town in Soviet Georgia, "Forbidden Christmas" touches on universal themes of love and loss, told in the slightly surreal fashion for which Gabriadze is known.

"It's a story about two men, two friends, and how they affected each other's lives one Christmas Eve," Baryshnikov says simply.

In case you're wondering, Baryshnikov doesn't dance in the play, but he does create what he calls "physical theater" as Chito, the town's resident madman, who believes that he is a taxi.

"He becomes a car when he sees his fiancee -- who has left him for somebody else -- go away in her future husband's car," he explains. "Chito's not a car just for being a car. It's because when he sees this last image, his love being driven away by somebody else, he wants to be that car and maybe he will win her back.

"It's an unusual kind of story. But although the few physical elements were very important, the most difficult thing was when we decided that this is not a pantomime. Nobody wants to challenge Marcel Marceau, you know?" he says with a laugh.

Just the title "Forbidden Christmas" will conjure up memories, and perhaps mixed emotions, for anyone who grew up in the militantly atheist Soviet Union.

"I was very little but I remember the slogans: 'Christmas is a vestige of capitalism,' and 'Religion is the opiate of the masses,'" recalls Baryshnikov, who was born in 1948 in Latvia to Russian parents. "Religious persecutions were very common. And especially before Stalin's death, people who celebrated Christmas very often were sent to the gulag. If somebody sent a letter to the KGB, that the family of so-and-so is celebrating Christmas, you might be arrested the very same night and sent God knows where."

When it came to the holiday, his own household was quietly divided.

"We didn't have a Christmas. My father was an atheist, an army officer," he continues. "My mother was religious, and I was secretly baptized by my grandmother and my mother, but I never attended a church. Instead of Santa Claus, we had Grandfather Frost and his little apprentice, the Snow Maiden. There was no mention of the life of Christ. My religion was the dance, and the stage was my church."

When Baryshnikov was 13, his mother committed suicide, which may have propelled him to throw himself into dance with even greater fervor. Even now, he gives himself 100 percent to all his projects.

Although "Forbidden Christmas" has gotten only moderate critical response so far, Baryshnikov notes that the cast anticipated that it would continue to evolve as they performed it for three weeks at the Spoleto Festival USA, a prestigious annual arts event.

"Probably it will be very different when we arrive in California," he says, "and I am very much relying on my partners. Jon DeVries, who plays the doctor, is really a phenomenal actor. He is the main protagonist, and I am kind of his sidekick. I'm not part of this acting world, so he really gives me a lot of corrections, a lot of suggestions."

When asked if it makes him any more nervous to be onstage speaking and acting rather than pirouetting, he chuckles. "Well, I know a little bit more about dancing than acting in the theater, of course. But to have to go in front of the audience and make a fool of yourself, dancing, singing, playing an instrument, acting, it's pretty much the same. That's just the theater. It's a matter of confidence and the right preparation, of course. And a little bit of luck."

Luck, along with talent and good timing, have certainly played their part in Baryshnikov's life. At the age of 18 he joined the renowned Kirov Ballet and made a splash at his debut as a soloist in "Giselle." He came to international attention after winning the gold medal at the Moscow International Ballet Competition in 1969, and then shot to worldwide stardom after his defection during the Kirov's tour to Canada.

In the 1980s, Baryshnikov took over leadership of the American Ballet Theatre -- the company he joined when he first came to the United States. During his tenure, he added works by modern choreographers such as Twyla Tharp and Choo-San Goh to the company's repertoire, but his years with ABT also saw the company's debts balloon to $1 million, in part from the expense of lavish productions. As artistic director, Baryshnikov endured as much criticism as praise for his efforts, and clearly, mention of the experience still touches a nerve.

"In the '70s when I arrived, New York was the dream of my life and I just totally fell in love with it. I love the energy of it, the amount of information, theater, galleries, of interesting people," he says. "But I really disliked the art politics. In the early '90s, I left New York emotionally. I worked elsewhere and always had a better time performing somewhere else."

In 1989, after leaving ABT, he stoked his interest in and love of modern dance by founding the White Oak Dance Project in 1990 with choreographer Mark Morris.

Although he now lives with his partner, former ABT dancer Lisa Rinehart, and their three children just outside of the city, he's made his peace with New York.

In fact, he has poured all his energy into fund-raising for his newest venture, the Baryshnikov Arts Center, based in midtown Manhattan. The earnings from both "Forbidden Christmas" and last year's solo tour will go toward the center, which is scheduled to open this fall.

His dream is to raise close to $25 million for the center. Plans call for a six-story building with three theaters and three floors of rehearsal studios and offices.

"There's nothing like that in New York, and the city badly needs that kind of place for young professionals and college graduates that they can really come and hang out, see other people's work or put on inter-collaborative kind of projects," says Baryshnikov.

"Musicians, artists, costume designers, lighting designers, playwrights, choreographers, actors will meet to work on the same projects. It will be a private place with no pressure from outside, where people can exchange their ideas. It's a bit of a socialist idea, but what the hell!"

One can't help thinking that a project this ambitious and encompassing in scope sounds like a legacy. Is this what he wants to do with the rest of his life?

"Oh, for sure. That's the end of it!" he says, laughing. "That's my baby, and that's what I'll do.

"The last few years I was overdosed with dance," he says frankly. "I finished with White Oak a couple of years ago and then was on tour for practically a year and a half. I was bitten up. My body, my mind needed to do something else; or just to stop and take a year sabbatical. I'm really tired of traveling. My kids are growing up, and now I want to be next to them. Planted.

"Somehow I'm back emotionally with New York, and I think I can, I know I can contribute in a positive way to the arts scene in New York. To help other young people to succeed and show their work and improve."


• WHO: Mikhail Baryshnikov

• WHAT: Starring in "Forbidden Christmas, or the Doctor and the Patient"

• WHERE: Zellerbach Playhouse, UC Berkeley, Bancroft Way at Telegraph Avenue

• WHEN: Wednesday through June 20

• HOW MUCH: $65

• CONTACT: 510-642-9988,

This article first appeared in the Contra Costa Times.


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