In a new adaptation of "The Cherry Orchard," at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York, the center's namesake is playing an old servant. "I am almost 75, and I am playing 85 years old, you know? Okay!" he laughed.
The white hair is for his character, named Firs. "It's bleached," he advised correspondent Anthony Mason. "It's not mine – yet!"
One of the world's most acclaimed dancers, Mikhail Baryshnikov has worked only occasionally as an actor, most notably an Oscar-nominated performance in the 1977 film, "The Turning Point," and playing Carrie Bradshaw's Russian boyfriend on "Sex and the City."
But he learned from some of the best. "James Cagney, he was good friend of mine," Baryshnikov said. "I said, 'James, how you play?' He said, 'Listen what the person is telling you, and then tell him back the truth. And if you're not dumb, you observe.'"
Ukrainian-born Igor Golyak is directing the Soviet-born actor in this Russian classic. "He has some sort of a light or some sort of a presence that is extremely unique," Golyak said of his star.
"So, what's that like as a director?" asked Mason.
"There's no way to control it!" he laughed.
Baryshnikov has another role, as playwright Anton Chekhov, in the virtual production.
In Chekhov's play, the matriarch of a family (played by Jessica Hecht) faces financial troubles and has to face selling their beloved orchard. Golyak said, "The orchard, in the bigger sense of the word, one of the characters says, 'All of Russia is our orchard.' And it's very relatable right now. There is a complete loss of Russia right now."
As Golyak was planning the production, Russia invaded Ukraine. His family had left Kyiv for Boston back in 1990, when he was just 11. "But when this war started, you know, something in the stomach started twisting," Golyak said. "And it just hurts."
Mason asked Baryshnikov, "How has it been for you to watch what's happening in Ukraine?"
"Horrific," he replied. "Just now I have shivers, you know, about it."
Baryshnikov made headlines around the world when he defected from the Soviet Union in 1974. "Does it seem a long time ago?" asked Mason.
"No, it's been so, it's been very fast. Unfortunately!"
"You never wanted to go back to Russia?"
"No. Somehow, maybe instinctively, I knew that one day something like that would happen."
In his Soviet years, as a principal dancer with the Kirov Ballet, Baryshnikov was privileged to travel, but he was watched.
Mason said, "You were usually followed by KGB agents when you went, yes?"
"Yes, but they were guys, a couple of guys always. You knew them by names, you know? And sometimes have coffee with them, you know. It was like, okay. We have nicknames for them."
"So, it wasn't that intimidating?"
"Of course, they have many different faces," he said.
But in 1974, while touring with the Bolshoi Ballet in Toronto, Baryshnikov slipped away. Days after his defection, he appeared at a dance studio in Toronto
Mason said, "You've tried not to be political over the years. But you've made a point now, with what's happening in Ukraine, to say something."
"I couldn't stay silent this time," Baryshnikov said. "I was born in Soviet – at that time Soviet Latvia – in a family of a military officer."
His father, a Soviet colonel, was a Stalinist. It was his mother who introduced him to the arts in Riga, the Latvian capital. "At age 6 or 7, the first time my mother took me to see ballet, and it's the orchestra playing and this beautiful theatre, and it got me. It got me."
In 2017, Baryshnikov was given Latvian citizenship: "It means something. My mother is buried there. And that's why, back to your question about why now, that idea that I would see Russian tanks would go again to Baltics …"
"You're afraid for Latvia?"
"I'm afraid for all that part of the world," Baryshnikov said, "because I am part of it."
Recently he co-founded the charity True Russia, to raise money for Ukrainian refugees. When Russia banned its website earlier this month, Baryshnikov addressed an open letter to President Putin: "Your Russian world, the world of fear … will not live on as long as there are people like us."
Mason asked, "What did you think when Putin said Russians who support the West are 'scum and traitors'?"
"You know, this is disgusting," he replied.
"Do you think of this as Russia's war? Or Putin's war?"
"It is Putin's war," Baryshnikov replied. "He's trying to create a new history of Russia. He does not care about people at all. Although how it's possible, he has kids himself, you know? How it's possible?"
"Russians who speak out against him have a way of kind of disappearing."
"Listen, I will be 75 years old. What I have to lose?"
As he performs in "The Orchard," Mikhail Baryshnikov says the role of the arts is to inspire and engage ("It's an oxygen"), and his more important job is here, at the arts center that bears his name.
Mason asked, "Why is it the most important job?"
"It's a social service," he said. "I've been honored to make my home in New York. I love this country, with all craziness. There is nothing better to be a free man and living with your family in free society and in this extraordinary city."
To watch a trailer for the live + immersive production of "The Orchard" click on the video player below:
For more info:
- "The Orchard," through July 3, at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York City | Tickets for in-person and online interactive experience
- Baryshnikov Arts Center (Main site)
- True Russia (English language site)
Story produced by Sara Kugel. Editor: Steven Tyler.
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