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Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov on Acting (and Dancing!) Together at BAM

Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine

Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov’s first encounter last year was uneventful—aside from the two minutes of dead silence at the beginning. It’s an odd tradition director Robert Wilson observes at early table readings. “Everybody starts to breathe a little deeper … or shallower,” Baryshnikov says. “I think Bob is waiting for that moment when someone will get up and say, ‘No, I changed my mind! Not doing this!’ ”

He didn’t, though that was just the tip of the weirdness iceberg. Starting June 22 at BAM, they will star in Wilson’s production of The Old Woman, based on a novella by Daniil Kharms, a Soviet writer who died in Stalin’s Gulag. Dressed nearly identically, in Kabuki-style whiteface, Baryshnikov and Dafoe perform a series of surreal vaudevillian scenes incorporating song and dance to relate Kharms’s tale. Baryshnikov, who had been eager to work with Wilson, “fell in love with this totally bizarre absurdity,” about a writer who discovers a dead woman in his home. He’s always been a Dafoe fan: “I started to see him 30 years ago with the Wooster Group, when my English wasn’t so good,” Baryshnikov says. “I couldn’t understand half of what they said, and I still can’t! But I remember Willem in many roles.” And, Baryshnikov adds, “he dances very well.” Dafoe recalls those nights too. “We were always very excited when Misha was in the audience,” he says. “And I appreciate that he’s done a lot—he’s taken on many experiments.”  

Speaking of experimentalists: Wilson, explains Dafoe, “never really tells you what stuff means. In the beginning, it was like, ‘Try this page! Forget that! Say it three times! Say it backwards!’ It’s like you’re not preparing as much as performing a series of commands. It’s a wonderful and terrifying thing.”  

*This article appears in the June 16, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos