Russian, experimental, in Russian and French with supratitles do not conjure an evening of fun. Yet, there I was, sitting at the Broad, sandwiched between a blonde lady whose profile had more than a passing resemblance to Donald Duck’s and another middle-aged specimen in a leopard pantsuit. As to me, I had decided to trust Baryshnikov’s instincts and his predilection for experimental art that never let me down.
The last time I saw Mr. Baryshnikov dance was about 15 years ago, when he was still leading the White Oak Dance Project. What particularly stuck in my mind was a solo piece, danced with sparsity of movements to the sound of his heartbeat. It was a million miles away from the plies and jumps and fouettes of his famed classical career but much more personal and meaningful than any Romeo could ever be.
This theatrical piece Mr. Baryshnikov produced and acted in, currently on stage at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, is titled “In Paris”. Adapted from a short story by Nobel prize winner Ivan Bunin, it’s about loneliness and the love that grows between an older military man and a young waitress, both Russian emigrants, in 1930’s Paris. Short on literary value and dialogue (nothing much happens in the story and one of the best lines is “There is nothing more difficult than recognizing a good watermelon and a decent woman”), what it is long on is how the play is staged, with the stark set design of a tilted black stage filled with extra-sized sepia photographs that keep on being moved around to create different atmospheres, a Russian chorus who punctuates the story’s timeline with longing songs and the sheer physical presence of the actors, Mr. Baryshnikov and Ms. Anna Sinyakina.
Very convincing in the French monologue that sets the time and tone of the play, Mr. Baryshnikov’s strength, and Ms. Senyakina’s too, is nonetheless the way he commands the stage with fluid and assured movements (his stance while wearing his General’s coat, his tenderness in the kiss of a hand, his insecurity while waiting in the rain), eventually breaking in a toreador death dance at the end, which seemed to delight the audience who, somehow, still expects to see the 64-year-old Misha dance.
Nothing much in the text of the play (to be found inside the programme) drew me to a second or third reading but the visuals and the plasticity of the actors on stage lingered on in my mind. It’s that haunting feeling that Russians have been doing so well, no matter the medium, for centuries.