StageStruck: Baryshnikov, Earthbound

You’d think Man in a Case would be exactly the wrong vehicle for Mikhail Baryshnikov. Here is a man we associate, above all, with acrobatic physicality, weightless grace and a history of fearless boundary-breaking, playing a man obsessed with rules and decorum, tightly wrapped in a heavy overcoat and his own fears. But maybe that’s the point.

Big Dance Theater’s production is pretty stingy with dancing in the conventional sense. It’s an interdisciplinary piece that layers modern technology and sensibilities into a pair of short stories by Anton Chekhov. The world premiere now playing at Hartford Stage puts the theater’s technical consoles on the stage, microphones on the performers, and video projections on various surfaces of the stark gray set.

Chekhov’s original stories are framed as yarns told by a group of male friends. Here they’re launched from idle chat between a couple of present-day hunters. The title piece concerns one Belikov, the classics teacher in a provincial school, a regular Eeyore who expects the worst outcome of any event, hides himself in gloomy clothing and dark glasses, and blows his only opportunity for marriage because his intended offends feminine decency by riding a bike.

It’s shocking, even painful, to see Baryshnikov in this role, so bound up, almost motionless. We remember his exuberance and joyful spirit, the thrillingly effortless duet with Gregory Hines in White Nights, the iconoclastic balletics of Twyla Tharp’s Push Comes to Shove—so full of joy and so much about being unconstrained by traditional boundaries. Here he’s playing totally against our expectations, and I suspect that’s what co-directors Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar are after.

Baryshnikov is 65 years old now, and of course he can’t do those trademark gravity-defying leaps anymore. He’s earthbound, like the rest of us. But no, not really like the rest of us. In the second story, “About Love,” he dances—briefly, almost tentatively, but with all the fluid grace that we remember.

That tale, like “Man in a Case,” is also about the tragedy of allowing oneself to be bound by constraints that should have no significance. Recalling an unrequited love between a middle-aged bachelor and a married woman, it reminds us of our own missed opportunities, the unnatural constraints we accept or self-impose and—as we see in the man before us—the inevitability of aging.

The performance ends with a delicate and heartbreaking pas de deux, Baryshnikov pairing with Tymberly Canale, who plays the women’s roles in both stories. Most of it is performed with both of them lying on a floor marked off into a confining grid. Seen from above via a video projection, they seem to float, barely touching, earthbound but airborne, tracing a dream of intimacy. For us in the audience, feeling the weight of our years, it’s reassuring to see this icon, his feet no longer winged, but his grace, his spirit, his buoyant charm intact.•

Through March 24 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford, (860) 527-5151,

Contact Chris Rohmann at

Author: Chris Rohmann

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