Mikhail Baryshnikov leaps back into the spotlight at Berkeley Rep in "Man in a Case."
The ballet legend has long had a love for breaking new ground in postmodern dance and experimental theater circles. Last year, Berkeley Rep audiences watched him tread the boards in the elegant Ivan Bunin romance "In Paris." Now he's starring in a melancholy double bill inspired by two Chekhov short stories about love, loss and loneliness.
"Man in a Case," adapted for the stage by Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson of Big Dance Theater, is an edgy mash-up of great literature and high-tech multimedia that will both challenge and seduce the audience. The highly anticipated piece runs through Feb. 16 at Berkeley Rep.
Baryshnikov has been steeping in Chekhov ever since he was a little boy growing up in Riga, Latvia. He famously defected to the West in 1974 and became the toast of both the New York City Ballet under Balanchine and American Ballet Theatre. But Chekhov has always been part of his soul.
"The great Russian writers capture the universality of human experience, the tragedy of life, the beauty of it," says the dancer turned actor in his lyrical Russian accent. "It's all there in Chekhov."
Of course, the Oscar-nominated Baryshnikov, 65, has long been a Hollywood star (from "The Turning Point" to "Sex in the City"), but he simply can't resist the joys of the theater.
"There is nothing like it," he says. "The theater pushes you into a very dark place in your mind."
A veteran of the spotlight, he also craves the high-wire act of live performance.
"I love it because it scares me. Every time I step onstage, I get the same empty stomach, the same butterflies. You have to live up to the material, to do it justice."
He's also a huge fan of the Berkeley Rep audience and its embrace of the avant-garde.
"I had a great time there, because the audience is very diverse and very vibrant, which is what we need," he says. "Experimental theater demands the participation of the audience. It's a very complex process, a deconstruction of the text, and the audience has to welcome that level of complexity."
If Hollywood is usually dedicated to entertainment, the theater remains largely the realm of art, a stance which suits the ballet icon's aesthetic.
"I can't imagine what my life would be without art; it terrifies me to think about it," he says. "Life would be bloodless and senseless without it."
Misha, of course, is far from the only big-screen star who has graced Bay Area stages on a regular basis. Here's a roundup of recent performances that have kept local audiences star-struck.
Adapted from two Anton Chekhov stories, starring Mikhail Baryshnikov
When: Saturday through Feb. 16
Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St.
Tickets: $45-$125, 510-647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org