Mikhail Baryshnikov is known to audiences the world over as one of the greatest ballet dancers in history, but that won’t stop certain philistines like me and everyone else I know from thinking of him mostly as the guy who was dumped by Carrie in “Sex and the City” — you know, so she could be with Mr. Big.
Luckily, the Bay Area is getting another chance to appreciate Baryshnikov beyond the small screen: He’s currently in town to perform in In Paris at Berkeley Rep. The show premieres tonight and runs through May 13.
Recently, KQED’s Cy Musiker talked to Baryshnikov about the show and his career. Here’s extended audio of the interview that will be broadcast on KQED FM 88.5 this evening. An edited transcript follows…
CY MUSIKER: An American critic once called Mikhail Baryshnikov the most perfect ballet dancer he’d ever seen. Now he’s coming to Berkeley Rep Theatre with a kind of musical play called In Paris. It tells the story of two lonely Russian émigrés who fled the Bolsheviks and settled in Paris in the 1930s. Tell us more about these characters.
MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV: My character, a retired general of the White Russian army, which was kicked out of Russia by the Bolshevik army, lives in Paris and is in his mid-60s, which I am myself.
By chance he meets a very young beautiful woman in a Russian restaurant in Paris. This is a classic love story which ends up in a kind of tragic way. It’s an adaptation of a short story by a great Russian writer and Nobel Prize laureate Ivan Bunin, who himself lived in exile in Paris and who never returned to Russia.
The director of the play is a well-known experimental director, Dmitry Krymov. It’s performed in Russian and in French, the way it’s written by Ivan Bunin.
MUSIKER: You said you’ve based your character on your father. What did you borrow from him?
BARYSHNIKOV: Well vaguely. I grew up in a military family. He was teaching in a military academy in Riga, Latvia. And his whole life was in the military. When you’re in the military you’re always a military man. And certain mannerisms I took from the behavior of my father.
MUSIKER: This play tells its story through music, song, mime and videos. How would you describe it?
BARYSHNIKOV: It’s not a musical, per se. There’s no recorded sound. All actors are musician-singers. And there is no mime, per se. It’s done in a very simple, poetic way.
There’s a bit of dancing actually. There’s a wonderful choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky, who contributed to this play, and a couple of minutes of pure dance, in fact.
But it’s not my first experience in the theater. I’ve been in a few plays on broadway, and because I’m not trained formally as an actor, I rely a lot on my instincts as a dancer on stage.
MUSIKER: How does your dancing inform your acting?
BARYSHNIKOV: The complexity of dance depends on internal motivations and movements, somehow. I always like to see dance when a dancer gives me that untold story which gives movement extra complexity.
Just the behavior on stage as an actor, walking from point A to point B, requires internal everyday motivation. You get up and you go and brush your teeth, or for any other reason. The same thing on stage. Like James Cagney used to say, you listen to your partner on stage or in a film and you reply with the truth.
MUSIKER: The character you play would love to return to the Russia he remembers before the Bolshevik revolution. How about yourself, does it stir any interest in returning to Russia?
BARYSHNIKOV: Never crosses my mind.
MUSIKER: Why is that?
BARYSHNIKOV: Many personal and sociopolitical reasons. It’s a story for another interview I guess.
MUSIKER: I read that the Russian crew on the show finds your conversational Russian old-fashioned.
BARYSHNIKOV: Well it’s written in old-fashioned language. It was written in the 1930s the way let’s say the military intelligentsia or just a cultural Russian would speak, which has pretty much disappeared from the everyday language in Russia now.
MUSIKER: How does it feel speaking Russian again on the stage?
BARYSHNIKOV: It’s an extraordinary pleasure. It’s easier to act of course in your mother tongue.
MUSIKER: You invested in this production yourself, $250,000…
BARYSHNIKOV: I liked the story, I found a partner who matched my money, and I didn’t want to go to any Broadway producers or any private money.
MUSIKER: Will you make that money back?
BARYSHNIKOV: No, you’re kidding. It’s just a love affair. I love theater and I thought it’s an interesting project and it was easier to finance it this way.
MUSIKER: You’ve danced in the U.S. for decades and starred in a number of movies. Are you surprised that your fame now rests on your part in the final season of the TV show “Sex and the City” as Carrie Bradshaw’s lover?
BARYSHNIKOV: It was a fun adventure. That was quite a tour de force. It’s hard work, being next to the wonderful group of actors who’d been in the story for six seasons. But I always try to put myself on a bit of an edge and see if I can do it.
Not that I was really dying to be in a TV sitcom. I never even heard about “Sex and the City” until I was approached by Sarah Jessica. But I thought why not, and I didn’t’ regret the decision. It was a lot of fun.
MUSIKER: But you didn’t get the girl.
BARYSHNIKOV: Well, that’s life, Cy.