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.
"I always loved theater but I couldn't go see a play by Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller. So instead I went to see shows by [experimental theater artists such as] the Wooster Group, [Robert] Wilson and by Meredith Monk,
He was attracted to the theatrical visuals, the conceptual themes and the specific way the pieces moved "and that kind of theater was a cool thing. I had never seen anything like it."
It also inspired Baryshnikov to explore theater as he calibrated his dance career. In 1989, he performed in an adaptation of Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis" on Broadway, in a role that did not make verbal demands on him. He played a man transformed into a cockroach.
But as he became more comfortable with English, he began to branch out.
"I could hear my voice and learn how to modulate it to express something that I feel," he says. "It was no longer I push a button and 'A' comes out. I began to feel that there was something there."
"Forbidden Christmas" in 2006, staged by experimental director Rezo Gabriadze, had very little text and relied on movement. "The notices were mixed but for me it was great," Baryshnikov says.
In 2007 and 2008, he performed in a series of Samuel Beckett short works, directed by Akalaitis and featuring actors Bill Camp, David Neumann and Karen Kandel.
When he did "In Paris " which Baryshnikov performed in his native Russian language and French for more than 100 performances in 2011 and 2012, "that gave me a little more stamina and confidence. "In Paris," which eventually played Lincoln Center, was a theatrical adaptation of a Russian novella of loneliness and loss by Nobel Prize winner Ivan Bunin, and staged by avant-garde director Dmitry Krymov.
It was inevitable he would turn to Chekhov, he says. "People told me I have to do Chekhov at least once, win or fail.
"I thought, 'Yes, maybe' but I would never have thought of a big play of his like 'Uncle Vanya' so I turned to the short stories, which would allow it to be conceptual and allow for interpretation. And I thought Paul and Annie-B would be the perfect pair."
Big Dance Theater
"It's an adaptation of a story so it's immediately insisting on translation in the largest sense of the word," co-director Lazar who says. They could have simply handed the story over to a playwright and said, 'Write a script for us to act out.'"
Instead the company used "a whole panoply of theater elements: video and dance and choreography and turned it into this thing that exists in some mysterious space between a story and a play. It still has a resonance of a written prose story — ambiguity that suggests multiple meanings. We actually use text at times so you don't entirely forget that this actually not a play. Chekhov knew how to write plays and if he wanted this to be a play he would have written it as a play.
"On first blush, the two stories couldn't be more different and we love that. The first story has many characters and a sequence of events "that makes it eminently theatrical."
"About Love" "demands complete simplicity, says Lazar. "It's a nice contrast. In the second piece Misha speaks very straight-forward and it's lovely, bittersweet."
In that story, a man has to make a decision about the married woman he loves as the train she is in is about to pull out of the station, perhaps taking her away forever
But there are similarities between the protagonists in the two stories
"They have both some sort of restraint, some self-imposed restriction," says Lazar. "They both place themselves in 'cases' and whether you think that's good or bad, oppressed or repressed, in Chekovian fashion, he leaves it somewhat ambiguous."
When asked if he likes his character, Baryshnikov counters, "Which one? Or do you mean the man who sits here now? My wife sometimes likes him but sometimes not. The reviews come in every day." He breaks out in a big laugh."
Do the pieces make him reflect of the nature of his own life then?
"I never dreamt that this is where I would end up my life," he says, referring to his most prominent role of running a multi-million dollar arts center. "There are huge challenges — fundraising especially and programming for two theaters. It's a huge responsibility."
The arts center is home for its resident company, The Wooster Group. St. Luke Orchestra also shares the building. There are guest artists from South American, Europe and Russia using its rehearsals rooms and stages.
"We have a good team but it's not always the most pleasant exercise running an arts center] because you have to be realistic sometimes."
Two years ago, Baryshnikov sold a painting at auction by Vasily Vereshchagin's "View of St. Petersburg" at Sotheby's — which waved its fee — and raised more than $700,000 for the center. "We were a bit short on the cash, but I feel old art should help make new art."
As for the future of "Man in a Case," Baryshnikov says, "I hope it has legs beyond the Hartford experience."
His is a a crowded future. Baryshnikov has an upcoming ensemble piece to perform with the Mark Morris Dance Theater this spring in Brooklyn. "And there are a couple of projects not yet announced but I don't want to run in front of the horse."
"It's been quite a ride," he says of his multiple careers, "and the years are passing so fast. It's been many years since I began here and wow, it all goes faster and faster the older you get. It feels as though the train is rushing down the hill, faster and faster with no breaks."
MAN IN A CASE begins previews Thursday, Feb. 21, at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Press night is Wednesday, Feb. 27. The run continues through March 24. Tickets are $36.50 to $116.50. Information: 860-527-5151 and www.hartfordstage.org,