Mikhail Baryshnikov in Paris where he plays a Russian emigre in the play, "In Paris," which will move to New York.
PARIS — In 1978, the first time Mikhail Baryshnikov performed in Paris, he was booed. Loudly. He was dancing the role of the doomed Herman in Roland Petit’s interpretation of “Queen of Spades,” and the audience hated it.
Mikhail Baryshnikov stars in "In Paris" at the Chailot National Theater in Paris.
“It was a new work from a great French choreographer,” Mr. Baryshnikov recalled recently in a cafe overlooking the Seine. “I thought it was one of his best ballets. It was a learning experience for me.”
This week Mr. Baryshnikov is performing in the Paris premiere of “In Paris,” a stark, experimental theatrical adaptation of a 1940 short story by Ivan Bunin, the first Russian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The well-heeled audience, which usually comes to the Théâtre National de Chaillot for more traditional fare, responded on opening night last Thursday with barely polite applause.
“They didn’t boo!” Mr. Baryshnikov exclaimed, speaking in English. “Someone told me, ‘They didn’t boo, and if they don’t boo, that’s good.’ ”
Set in 1930, “In Paris” tells the brief, tragic love story of two lonely Russian immigrants, an ex-general of the old imperial army and a beautiful, much younger woman whom he meets at the Russian restaurant where she works as a waitress.
Staged by Dmitry Krymov, a set designer and painter who started an experimental theater in Moscow in 2005, “In Paris” uses music, song, mime, video and poster-size images of old Paris postcards to create a somber world in black and white.
It features eight Russians, six Americans and two Finns, and is performed in Russian, with subtitles and passages from the story — some in French, some in English — rolling up the back screen of the stage.
Although he made his global reputation as a ballet dancer, Mr. Baryshnikov has had a quieter parallel career as an actor. In 1977 he received an Oscar nomination for “The Turning Point,” and he appeared on Broadway in an adaptation of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” in 1989. But probably his most famous acting role was in the last season of HBO’s “Sex and the City,” when he played a self-absorbed Russian artist who seduces Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw and takes her off to Paris. (He didn’t end up getting the girl.)
For the first time, Mr. Baryshnikov, 63, is speaking his native Russian onstage. He hasn’t spoken much Russian for years (he defected in 1974), and his use of out-of-date expressions has amused the Russian members of the team.
“He speaks in old-style Russian,” Mr. Krymov said after the premiere. “Not like before the Russian Revolution, mind you, but perhaps a little un-contemporary.”
Mr. Baryshnikov invested $250,000 of his own money in the project and solicited another $250,000 from a close Russian friend in New York. “I did this out of fun,” he said. “I’ll never get my money back. This is just out of love.”
The play was performed briefly in Helsinki in April and in the Netherlands in August. After it closes here on Saturday, it moves to Tel Aviv in November and to Berkeley and Santa Monica, Calif., next April.
It evokes the years when White Russians fled the Bolsheviks, many of them settling in Paris. Mr. Baryshnikov took inspiration from his father, who had been a lieutenant colonel.
“He was not a very pleasant man,” he said. “I did not have the happiest of childhoods. His mannerisms, his military habits, I put them in my interpretation.”
The production celebrates technical style over emotional sensuality. The most erotic scene is when the old general takes the hand of the young woman and kisses the inside of her wrist.
“I was trying to develop a play about loneliness, not an affair between an old man and a young woman,” Mr. Krymov said. “When they finally come together, there is no love scene.”
Mr. Baryshnikov, who is also the producer of the play, admits that he might have performed some scenes differently.
“The director is not a sentimentalist,” he said. “He asked us to try not to get too emotional. I myself didn’t agree with many of his choices. But I am not entitled to raise my objections. It’s the same with a choreographer. If you commit, you should be a good foot soldier. This is not the place to be a general.”
The play has met with mixed reviews. Russian critics loved it when it was performed in Helsinki; a Finnish newspaper savaged it.
“They called it nonsense, terrible, nothing there,” Mr. Baryshnikov said. The magazine Le Nouvel Observateur last week criticized the story as “very thin,” but praised Mr. Baryshnikov as “instinctively sure of himself,” while Le Monde singled out a final scene in which the audience watches the general, back from the dead and transformed into a bullfighter, briefly dance.
“We see our memories of Baryshnikov,” a critic wrote. “A distant sparkle is still there.”
Mr. Baryshnikov has long been a fan of the works of Bunin, who fled the Bolsheviks, settled in France and is buried in the cemetery of a Russian Orthodox Church outside Paris. Unlike Bunin, however, who never overcame his sense of alienation from his native Russia, Mr. Baryshnikov has made Paris his own.
He learned the geography of Paris by reading “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo” as a child growing up in Riga. “I knew where the Place Vendôme was, the Palais Royal, the entrances and exits of the Metro, from Dumas,” he said.
French was the fourth language he learned, after Russian, Latvian and German. As a teenager, he was obsessed by French films and sang along to Piaf, Brassens and Brel.
After defecting, he danced on and off as a guest with the Paris Opera Ballet. A dozen years ago he bought a small duplex apartment in a 17th-century building on the Île Saint-Louis.
In a black jacket, jeans and dark sunglasses despite the grayness of a September morning, he walks unrecognized in Paris, even though large billboards of him staring out, next to Anna Sinyakina, the actress who plays opposite him, hang in Métro stations throughout the city.
“In Paris, I’m living in my own picture postcard,” he said. “When you carry the keys to your own home in your pocket, there is nothing better.”
by Elaine Sciolino, The New York Times, 14.09.2011