5:12 pm Aug. 3, 2012
Wednesday night at the Gerald Lynch Theater, Mikhail Baryshnikov seemed to have come full circle as the star of Dmitry Krymov’s experimental, multimedia theater production In Paris. (It’s on through Sunday as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.)
In the performance, 64-year-old Baryshnikov speaks not in English, the language of his decades in the West, but in the French and Russian that defined his youthful experience in the Soviet Union prior to his defection in 1974. Over the past year, Baryshnikov has been touring with In Paris around Europe as well as the United States. Music, song, dance, video and other sounds and images make up the work; the impression is of many short takes that add up to more than so many bytes, augmented by the way that Baryshnikov’s own performance history and identity are featured front and center.
In the production, set in 1930, Baryshnikov plays an aging former officer of the Russian Imperial army, long exiled in Paris. Directed as well as adapted by Krymov, In Paris is based on a 1940 short story by Russian novelist and poet Ivan Bunin, who despite being the first Russian writer to win the Nobel Prize, lived most of his later life himself as an exile in Paris; Bunin’s late work frequently addressed the Russian émigré experience. Bunin’s text isn’t diminished amid the theatricality.
Indeed Bunin’s words are empirically ubiquitous (the piece is entirely in Russian and French): the dialogue is echoed both by a cappella vocalizations and the English translations washing across the playing field, the entire stage becoming a projection screen.
Baryshnikov is fully integrated into the eight-member ensemble, but nevertheless, and just as he should, Krymov has made In Paris as much about Baryshikov’s career-long ways of being on stage as about Bunin’s sad tale. It tells of a short affair between the officer and a much-younger waitress (well-played by Anna Sinyakina). Baryshnikov’s own celebrity is on the agenda as he makes his initial appearance in a classic long officer’s coat. He explains who his character is, how his wife deserted him, while photographers cluster at the front of the stage. Since his defection, Baryshnikov’s career in the West has been largely an attempt to plumb possibilities unknown in the Soviet Union at the time he left. (He’s continued in that direction even since 1989). In much the same way that his Western career has often been a rebuke to his past, he’s been diffident until now about accessing his Russian experience. He will speak Russian to friends but almost never in public, and he was in younger days often disdainful of émigrés who chose to do so. Now, the very fact that he speaks entirely in Russian and French in this theater piece must inevitably function as an act of reconciliation.
Russian is perhaps a highly charged language for him because in his youth it identified him as an enemy in Soviet-occupied Latvia, where he grew up amid much tension between the native Latvians and those, like Baryshnikov’s family, who were members of the ruling Soviet invaders (his father was a military officer there). French has always been the language of ballet, and it was also the academic language of choice for students at the state ballet school in St. Petersburg, from which he graduated in 1967, one of many ways in which the school preserved pre-Revolutionary traditions. Sometimes, indeed, Baryshnikov here seems to go back to those student days by speaking in a dutiful manner, sometimes in a monotone, as if reciting at the head of the class. He is cynical, resigned, droll, but then sometimes he swirls the words around his mouth as if they were fine wine. His French, by the way, is remarkably free of Slavic overlay—more so than his English.
Throughout the 75-minute piece, Krymov demonstrates his directorial propensity for pulling loose threads out of the original story’s slight and compact narrative—about the two lovers’ meeting, and their brief affair that ends when the officer dies suddenly. Krymov does this by making the telling of the tale as important as the tale itself. He is fully versed in the toolbox of postmodern multimedia techniques, and uses these to get inside the text as well as to look askance at it. That toolbox doesn’t become a grab bag, here, however; Krymov manages to walk a fine line between relevant asides and taking-time-off-the-clock digressions.
Although the pace of In Paris is often exaggeratedly slow, there remains a touch of the commedia dell’arte rapscallion about Baryshnikov. In Paris unfolds in a slow-burn tempo that allows him frequent reactions to its absurdist universe. When his coat and hat adamantly refuse to stay suspended on a rack the way they’re supposed to, he’s there to do battle, Chaplin-style, with the subversion of what should be inanimate objects. The director has an eye for physical incongruence, as when waitress Sinyakina waits on Baryshnikov: she stands straight at attention while he has trouble not slipping off his chair. Indeed, the set, by Maria Tregubova, works its own defiant treachery: it’s made up of part trompe l’oeil deception, part functional props. Nowhere is its sleight-of-hand more beguiling than in a piecemeal car—only one door actually opens—into which Baryshnikov and Sinyakina hop and circle the stage on a turntable track. This seems to echo the circularity of Baryshikov’s own journey back to this public embrace of his original language.
The choreography for In Paris was created by Alexei Ratmansky, who has made solo dances for Baryshnikov in the recent past. Baryshnikov’s dance experience becomes a frequent topic of allusion. When he walks downstage slightly stiff-legged, the retired officer’s infirmity becomes all the more poignant because it also represents time’s encroachment on a dancer like Baryshnikov. There is a sly and fleeting physical display when he walks downstage center and treats the audience as a mirror in which to shave, dropping his pants to show us his fabled legs in boxers. A brief outburst of tap and flamenco by him lays the groundwork for a steady march toward apotheosis. Flying on wires, Sinyakina eludes Baryshnikov’s reach, but then for a moment facilitates a virtual partnership by situating herself above him in a spectacular upside-down lift position (one that was important to the vocabulary of Soviet ballet).
One of Baryshnikov’s greatest classical roles was that of Basilio in Don Quixote; in the coda of resurrection that closes In Paris, Baryshnikov is dressed in a red-lined cape, ready for the corrida. He launches into an extended riff on Spanish dance. No, Baryshnikov cannot shed his past—and, it goes without saying, why in the world would we ever want him to?
'In Paris' runs at the Gerald Lynch Theater as part of the Lincoln Center Festival through Sunday, August 5. All photos by Maria Baranova.
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