An Interview with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Paul Lazar

Posted July 1, 2014

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All images:
Baryshnikov Productions: Man in a Case at Hartford Stage
Photo: T. Charles Erickson

This past summer, the MCA met individually with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Paul Lazar to talk about Man in a Case. The following compilation is distilled from those conversations.

MCA: How did you come to decide on collaborating?

Paul Lazar: My company, Big Dance, had worked a lot at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, and Misha is very aware of what’s happening in the contemporary theater and dance world. He pleasantly startled us when he said he would like to work with us. We threw around various ideas, but he was the one who introduced us to the idea of an adaptation of these two Chekhov stories: “The Man in a Case” and “About Love.” When you think oh, well, someone wants to act Chekhov you think Three Sisters or one of the plays. But wisely, Misha was like, “Those—you know they’re there. Those monolithic things are there. But this is a different way into Chekhov.”

Mikhail Baryshnikov: Like all experimental small groups, Big Dance Theater is pushing the envelope, incorporating movement in music, sound, and video, bringing that to the table. That’s why I think I know this choice was right because it opens—and their participation opens—a lot of doors to eliminate the socio-political aspect of it, to bring it to the ground. Because the stories were written in a very turbulent time, at the end of the nineteenth century in Russia. What unites them, in my view, is that they’re both stories about love, from very different perspectives, where very different dynamics are involved. It’s about two aspects of love if you want, both of them kind of tragic, but both of them highly recognizable, in my opinion, for modern audiences.

MCA: What drew you to Chekhov’s short stories as material?

MB: You know I grew up in the post–World War II system, and Chekhov is the pride of Russian culture as a writer. And not just Russian culture. You know the name of Anton Chekhov resonates with every serious director. Everyone has tried one way or another at some point in their careers to take a crack at the plays, let’s say The Seagull or Three Sisters, Cherry Orchard, etc., to some interpretations of short stories. And it’s never easy, because some language is very universal even with the translations.

Baryshnikov Productions: <em>Man in a Case</em> at Hartford Stage Photo: T. Charles Erickson

MCA: How did you approach the heart of the story visually and narratively?

PL: It is true in the case of both stories that they are linear and they are narrative. And certainly there’s a decent amount of our work that would be described as marginally narrative or perhaps at times even nonnarrative. So that is a difference. But we very much hew to the Chekhovian sequence of events, where we take advantage of movement, and the staging styles that are characteristic of our company are that these in fact are prose pieces that move through various locations. This is paradoxical, but they require a certain level of abstraction in order to maintain their realism.

There are two other elements that are key to the way we reconcile Chekhovian prose with our theater. One is that Peter Ksander, who made our set, does this sort of brilliant and thrilling design—simple, bold strokes, is the best way I could describe it. The other thing is that Jeff Larson is our video person, and we use video as a way of bringing the Chekhovian characters that are ancillary to the story into the environment.

MCA: How did your collaboration work, in practical terms?

MB: I’m coproducing this. I brought this project together. I brought this team together. Usually with these kinds of productions you spend weeks and weeks on stage with the costumes and set and all the elements, and a few weeks at least with the previews. We didn’t have this luxury. We ran for a few weeks at the Hartford Stage and just got better and better, in my view. We are looking forward to performing it throughout the United States, from Washington to Chicago to California to Boston. It should keep getting better and better for all of us.

Annie-B and Paul and all of our team were involved in research, of not just the particular stories and literal legacy of an author, but his life and the atmosphere at that time in Tsarist Russia. As I said, it was a turbulent time. Student protests about the very conservative regime at that time in Russia. Chekhov was a kind of a dissident writer, but like any great artist, he sort of reflected the political atmosphere at that time, and what really happened in that society. There are a lot of bridges throughout the centuries that resonate, the kind of disagreements between the conservative agenda and liberal agenda, very much so like the present day. Certain elements are highly recognizable.

The universal aspects of Chekhov the writer create an opportunity for a director. They wouldn’t take this project if it wasn’t suitable. They took this chance, because they are incorporating some elements from Three Sisters and a couple of things from his letters. There are some elements brought in from other works by Chekhov. Not many, but a few new elements are sort of injected into their adaptation of these two short stories.

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MCA: What has it been like to direct Baryshnikov in this production?

PL: It’s been a very dynamic collaboration, because Misha has a real interest in theater, not as spectator, but as a participant. Baryshnikov is someone who appropriately has an international stature, and yet he’s a very nuts-and-bolts guy when it comes to getting your ass on stage. It’s a place he’s familiar with; it’s a place he’s comfortable. So when you talk about collaborating with him, he’s in the mix, like all the other players. He’s accepting of the fact that this was him with a company.

Also, Misha has a legendary work ethic, which is important in all kinds of theater, but perhaps particularly with what we do because all of it is choreographed, all of it’s a dance of a kind. He’s somebody who’s got the capacity to work a moment until the steps are down, to the point where they can be done and infused with the spontaneity or a seeming spontaneity that is necessary.

The MCA Stage season goes on sale next Tuesday, July 8. Check out the entire lineup of groundbreaking work in theater, dance, and music here.

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