Sitting in the theater where he's about to showcase his latest work, Mikhail Baryshnikov confesses that even after decades on stage, he still gets nervous before every curtain call.
He's opening the play "In Paris" this week, and just thinking about its American debut makes him squirm: "I hate those first few hours before the show _ the uncertainty." "I'm a nervous performer no matter what I do," the 64-year-old dancer and actor said, his diminutive frame elegantly folded in a theater chair.
This latest production, though, offers a rare comfort: It's in his native language. "In Paris" is told in Russian and also French, which Baryshnikov says he learned "in my tender age." He helped produce the play by director Dmitry Krymov, based on a short story by Nobel Prize winner Ivan Bunin.
Baryshnikov plays a retired Russian soldier living in Paris after Russia's revolution and civil war. "His wife left him, he's a loner, a bit of a cynic," the actor said. He meets a young waitress, played by Anna Sinyakina, and "it's kind of a tragic, short-lived love affair." Krymov calls it "a very tender piece of theater."
"In Paris" plays at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, Calif., through April 21. It will run in Berkeley, Calif., and Spoleto, Italy, before closing in August at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York.
Baryshnikov said Bunin's work and Krymov's adaptation drew him to the piece. Performing in Russian for the first time in his career is an added delight.
Born in Latvia, Baryshnikov started studying ballet at age 9. He left the Soviet Union in 1974 to dance internationally, including with the New York City Ballet. He served as artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre for 10 years.
The dancer also found success as an actor, earning an Oscar nod for his supporting role in the 1977 film "The Turning Point." He starred alongside fellow famous dancer Gregory Hines in the 1985 film "White Nights" and had a recurring role on TV's "Sex and the City," playing a Russian artist who courted Carrie Bradshaw.
It's freeing to speak his native tongue in his latest project, he said, and fun to pick up modern slang from his younger cast mates. They speak an older language in the play, which is set in the 1930s.
"It's a different kind of phonetic pleasure, so to speak," he said. "I hear my voice more than when I speak in English. There's certain (sounds) that roll more comfortably from my tongue, and it's a bit of a kind of romantic nostalgia about the language, about the culture."
The culture, of course, is his own. He remembers learning about Russia's revolutionary times in school and met veterans of those battles when visiting France in the 1970s. Baryshnikov's father was a military man, and he channeled his dad's mannerisms on stage.
"The way Bunin describes this character, it kind of reminded me of one of my favorite actors _ Max Von Sydow," he said. "I thought if Max Von Sydow would play my father, that probably would be the ideal situation for this character."
He's inspired by Von Sydow and his "subtlety and dignity and that erect, very quiet internal life" he brings to his characters.
Baryshnikov said he also approaches "In Paris" like a dance, though there's only a tiny dance segment in the story. He said that because the director was once a painter, he brings that visual aesthetic to the stage. "I don't think that I am doing something so different from what I've done in the dance," Baryshnikov said.
"Of course I am not dancing, but I think this is not a realism play. It is a highly poetic, conceptual kind of palette, the way he tells a story, so you have certain liberties of exaggeration of the character and there is a lot of movement in it."
When the run of "In Paris" is done, though, Baryshnikov is ready to return to dancing in a more serious way. Though he declined to give details, he said he'll soon increase his hours in the studio "so my body will be attuned to work with a choreographer."
Lithe and strong in a blazer and slacks, he weighs the same as he did when he was 18, but "the body, over the years, gets tighter and tighter, so you have to open it and open it."
"Of course, the dancing which I am doing now is not dancing which I've been doing 25, 30 years ago. It's a different kind of work," he said. "The pieces which I am doing now with ... Mark Morris or Mats Ek, they see in front of them an old man. They know my body, they know me intimately, they know what I can do and what I will look stupid doing."
Baryshnikov is also developing some new theater projects, continues to work at his namesake arts center in New York and recently exhibited his photographs in Miami. He said he wants to "put myself on the spot again from a different perspective," but it probably won't be on the big screen _ and not just because of nerves.
"The problem with the movies is you have to leave home, and if it's a big serious movie you have to leave home for six to eight months. It's problematic," he said." The role has to really fit me right. I read a lot; all the time people send me scripts but they're not really interesting. It's always some Russian bandit or a choreographer or an ex-dancer."
AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen is on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/APSandy.