Legendary ballet dancers are of necessity a rare breed, their performances often remembered so vividly they seem to leave no space in the audience’s mind for another stage career. Seconds before In Paris started on Thursday, as Mikhail Baryshnikov himself stood waiting on the dark stage, some audience members were fervently recounting a 1970s appearance of his in Switzerland, and those of us who didn’t witness his glory days hoped against all odds to be initiated at last.
The legend himself, however, has moved on, and while his latest venture seemed to leave some long-time fans perplexed, the Dmitry Krymov Laboratory – a young Moscow-based company – has offered him an exceptional new leading role.
Premiered in Finland in August, In Paris contains little to no dance, but as theatre it is a resoundingly poetic work. Based on a short story by Ivan Bunin, the production closely follows the text: a Russian émigré in Paris meets a waitress who has also left their country, and the two cling to each other in their loneliness.
Pride of place is given to Bunin’s words, projected on to Baryshnikov’s body as he speaks early on, and the sparseness of the production, set in 1930, heightens their effect. Alone among black and white cardboard cutouts of old photos, the main characters seem to wander in a desolate city, doomed to a last attempt at a relationship.
The result is an intimate, melancholy story, where even the jokes are bittersweet, from Baryshnikov’s coat repeatedly falling from its hook to the surreal restaurant in which Olga works. A chorus of five actors and singers joins the couple, and both the music and the subtle use of video contribute to the atmosphere of this eerie, surprising production.
The visual coherence of the world designed by director and painter Dmitry Krymov helps compensate for a few overly long sequences, and tiny details, such as a mouse in the restaurant, or an unruly dog, bring a whimsical note to the play’s relentless sense of exile.
There is a particular poignancy to Baryshnikov’s performance as Nikolai Platonitch, a Russian general abandoned by his wife on the way to France. At 63, the one-time defector responds naturally to the story, the exactness of his body language now combined with a certain vulnerability. His dry, accented French contrasts here with the moving way he speaks his mother tongue on stage: like a long lost common friend, Russian seals his relationship with Olga (a beautifully unaffected Anna Sinyakina).
The only choreography, at the very end of the play, offers a fleeting glimpse of Baryshnikov as a matador struggling with death, conjuring images of bravura ballets. But there are still good reasons to see him today, and In Paris is one of them.