Mikhail Baryshnikov remembers studying a short story by Anton Chekhov, "Man in a Case," which was required reading in Russia when he was 14.
"I feel deeply personal towards this piece," says the actor-dancer-arts entrepreneur in his sleek modern office at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in West 37th Street of Manhattan. "Though you don't think of Chekhov as a political writer, he is very sly. It's a strange piece of literature."
It will now be a strange piece of theater, as "Man in a Case," produced by Baryshnikov Productions and ArKtype/Thomas O. Kriegsmann, will have its premiere at Hartford Stage with previews beginning Thursday, Feb,. 21. The show runs through March 24.
"Man in a Case" begins with two sportsmen holed up for a night. As they talk about their towns, one mentions an eccentric village character, Byelikov, a Greek teacher who many in the town privately mock. The prim and proper Byelikov is terrified of breaking rules, is insufferably moralistic and obessesed with social order and propriety. Things change in the village, and for him, when a free-spirited woman arrives.
Because "Man in the Case" was seen as too short a piece for a full theatrical evening, another tale by Chekhov, "About Love," was added. The stories are bookends of a trilogy of tales Chekhov wrote at the end of the 19th century. Both tales are about solitary men and their self-imposed restrictions. (The middle story, "Gooseberries," will not be performed.)
"I know people like this," says Baryshnikov, who at 65 cuts a lean and elegant figure. "Especially in the art world you meet so many eccentric people, so it's not far away from me."
Hartford Stage artistic director Darko Tresnjak heard through a mutual friend early last year that Baryshnikov wanted to explore a Chekhov story for the stage and approached the artist about presenting his work in Hartford. The show will be the third premiere in a row in Tresnjak's inaugural season following the musical "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" (slated to go to Broadway for the 2013-14 season) and the play with music, "Breath & Imagination."
Tresnjak says when Baryshnikov decided to collaborate with Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar of the cutting-edge Big Dance Theater "I knew this Chekhov piece was not going to be a traditional work but rather go to unpredictable and wild places."
Having a marquee name that bridges artistic disciplines also helps sell the show to audiences that might not be attracted to unconventional stagings. And, of course, there is Baryshnikov.
"People may know him for one thing — whether it's his extraordinary dance career or his acting in TV's "Sex And The City" or the film 'The Turning Point' — but the reason why I've admired him so over the years is because he has always been at the forefront of experimental artists, whether its working with [theater director] JoAnne Akalaitis or [choreographer] Mark Morris."
After watching a rehearsal of the show at the center's studios, Tresnjak says the piece "is completely true to the essence of Chekhov — and it has that combination of humor and despair."
The show's creators use theatrical devices — movement, video, music, projections and text to tell the stories, he says.
"A lot of people are looking at Chekhov in interesting ways these days," says Tresnjak, pointing to director Sam Gold's take on "Uncle Vanya" as re-envisioned by playwright Annie Baker at off-Broadway's Soho Rep last season to playwright. Or Christopher Durang's loopy, Chekhov-inspired "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" which opens on Broadway this spring.
It's not the first time that Baryishnikov had worked on challenging theatrical pieces, including one that played Hartford. In 2006 he developed an unorthodox theater-movement piece at the Bushnell Center for the Arts, "Forbidden Christmas: or The Doctor and the Patient." In that dark experimental piece, Baryshnikov played a man who was going mad, thinking he was a car.
But "Man in a Case" stretches the artist even further.
Accent On Conceptual
"Nearly 40 years ago I arrived in this country just knowing French," says the Latvian-born Baryshnikov of his famous defection from the former Soviet Union to the West in 1974, when the Kirov Ballet, where he was already a superstar, was playing Toronto.
"My English was just 'yes and no' and some pidgin English. But I really didn't need it that urgently because in dance everyone speaks their own language.'
Soon after, he came to the U.S. and was performing with the New York City Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre, which he later led. In the '90s he founded the White Oak Dance project which championed adventuresome contemporary dance.