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Monday, June 23, 2014

Baryshnikov and Dafoe Make It Physical

by Susan Yung

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe. Photo: Lucie Jansch

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe take the BAM Opera House stage in The Old Woman, directed by Robert Wilson, but they followed paths miles apart. One is among the finest ballet dancers in history and now runs Baryshnikov Arts Center (BAC), supporting and presenting new performing artists. The other began as a trouper in experimental theater and has acquired a lengthy film CV stuffed with outsized characters, villains, and Jesus.

Yet here they are in kabukian makeup and windswept coifs in The Old Woman, by absurdist Russian writer Daniil Kharms. It helps that the men are comparable in size—one easily, if briefly, could be mistaken for the other. They speak plenty (Baryshnikov in his native Russian, at times) and even sing, but an underlying commonality is both actors' ability to communicate nonverbally. (They speak about the play here.)

Mikhail Baryshnikov, VOOM Portrait by Robert Wilson
2004, Plasma Display Panel flat screen monitor, single
unit stereo speaker, media player, 64.5"x36.4"x3.9"
Baryshnikov was the subject of one of Wilson's super-slow-mo HD Voom portraits, which was featured on the 2007 Next Wave Festival BAMbill cover, but he is working with Wilson for the first time as a stage actor. Of course, decades as a leading ballet principal allowed him to develop expressive skills bounded and supported by a role's framework, using facial expressions, subtle head and shoulder positioning, gestures, speed, and projection. 

As an artistic director for ABT, White Oak Dance Project, and now BAC, Baryshnikov has learned to watch and listen to other artists while honing his own point of view. In addition to his film appearances (The Turning Point, White Nights), he had a memorable turn in Sex and the City, and trod the boards in Beckett Shorts at New York Theater Workshop in 2007. A few years ago, he performed a set of solos, including one by Benjamin Millepied in which he danced with a video of his younger ballet-boy self. More recently, he performed in 2012 in A Wooden Tree by Mark Morris (with whom he founded White Oak), a humorous, poignant dance which employed his dramatic skills and charisma.

With his growling baritone and midwestern brogue, Dafoe has done his share of voice work for film and TV (The Simpsons!), but his intense physical presence is an equal hallmark. A dedicated student of yoga, he performed in every theater production by The Wooster Group for its first 28 years, with riveting visceral appearances in The Hairy Ape and To You, The Birdie! (Ph├Ędre), in which he popped a gasp-inducing arched back.

On film, he has ranged in physically transformative roles from a sergeant (Platoon), Jesus (The Last Temptation of Christ), Max Schreck/Nosferatu (The Shadow of the Vampire), Green Goblin/Osborn (the Spider-Man movies), and a number of Wes Anderson's movies, including Hotel Budapest, as a bad guy with few lines and fewer fingers. He also recently performed in Wilson's The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic (2013) at the Park Avenue Armory, giving him a familiarity with Wilson's working process, and the desire to work with him again.

Of great actors, we say that we'd be happy to watch them read aloud the dictionary. Of Baryshnikov and Dafoe, I'd be happy to watch them simply read the dictionary, silently. Fortunately, in The Old Woman, they do so much more.

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