Mikhail Baryshnikov back on stage with Willem Dafoe

Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov in The Old Woman Willem Dafoe (left) stars with Mikhail Baryshnikov in The Old Woman

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Mikhail Baryshnikov was one of the world's greatest ballet dancers. He is back on stage, this time acting alongside US star Willem Dafoe in a play based on an absurd Russian novella.

Depending on your age and interests, you will know Mikhail Baryshnikov either as one of the most graceful creatures that ever set foot on a stage, in the same league as Nureyev and Nijinsky, or as that Russian bloke from Sex and the City.

Either way, you will not have seen him as he is in The Old Woman at the Palace Theatre in Manchester - ghostly white face, with mouth and eyes highlighted in black, and a protruding horn of moulded hair. He is clown, cartoon character and ghoul rolled into one.

The Old Woman is adapted from a work by Russian short story author Daniil Kharms, about a writer who lets a woman into his house before she promptly dies.

Kharms died in 1942 at the age of 36 in a prison psychiatric hospital.

Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1978 Baryshnikov defected from the USSR in 1974

"He wrote from very short paragraphs to small vignettes - very abstract in many cases and very bizarre and obscene," Baryshnikov says.

On stage, there is some dancing and all of the parts are shared between Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe, whose appearance has been similarly transformed.

For Baryshnikov, it is the latest step in a career that has evolved through classical ballet, contemporary dance, Broadway, films and New York-based girly TV comedies.

The Old Woman, part of the Manchester International Festival, is the "most difficult and the most challenging" role of his career, the 65-year-old says.

The challenge has been increased by the demands of director Robert Wilson, a visionary of avant-garde theatre who is best-known for creating the opera Einstein on the Beach with composer Philip Glass.

With most directors, an actor knows how they work and what to expect, Baryshnikov says.

"With Bob, every day is an adventure," he explains with a weariness in his thick Russian drawl. Almost 40 years since he defected from the USSR, his English is still a little bent, if not broken.

'Exhausting process'

"He asks you to do things which you never dreamt in your life.

"I sing in this, a little bit, but I never sang on stage. He forced me to choreograph, which I refused many times. I did little things in my past career, but I'm not a choreographer.

"First we were doing [the play] in English of course, and then he said, 'I think you should do it in both languages, Russian and English. You should switch from one sentence in Russian, to one sentence in English.'

"It was already in the middle of rehearsal process. And then he said, 'You put it in rhyme and then you sing it, and let's do it, maybe tomorrow.'

"I mean... Hello," he adds sarcastically.

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City Baryshnikov played Russian artist Aleksandr Petrovsky in Sex and the City

Wilson is known to be a perfectionist. "It is exhausting process and it doesn't let you go 24/7," Baryshnikov says. "For me it's much more exhausting than dancing all day."

Baryshnikov became beloved of ballet audiences in the 1970s, and settled in New York after his defection. Not content (and a little slight) as a romantic lead, he embraced more experimental choreographers and moved behind the scenes as an artistic director.

He appeared on the big screen in 1977's The Turning Point, earning an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. In 1989, he made his Broadway acting debut in Metamorphosis, and received a Tony Award nomination.

If people stop him in the street, I ask what they recognise him for. "Sex and the City, of course," he replies.

He played Carrie Bradshaw's suave Russian boyfriend Aleksandr Petrovsky in the hit TV series.

"Of course. It's funny. From Peru to Israel. It's always 'Trovsky? Trotsky? Petrotsky? Petrovsky? Oh yeah, that's right.' They think it's my name." He is animated now and struggles to talk through laughter.

"You know how the people, they think it's a reality show. It's a sad testament of attachment to television. People, they don't have real serious life in them. They live life of somebody else. That's what it is. That's what television's designed to do.

"I'm guilty. I love, do you know this programme Mad Men? This extraordinary programme."

Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov in The Old Woman Theatre director Robert Wilson is known for his striking visual style

The Old Woman is Baryshnikov's third recent stage part in adaptations of Russian stories, after plays based on works by Chekhov and Bunin. He has also run the Baryshnikov Arts Centre in New York since 2005.

Does he miss classical ballet? "No," comes the immediate reply. "No," he repeats with a dismissive chuckle. "Not at all.

"I rarely go. When my children were small, I used to take them to see the classical heritage and tradition of the Sleeping Beauties and Swan Lakes. But three hours of this, this time would never come back."

Did he not enjoy those parts when he was dancing them? "Very much. I loved performing Giselle and... The classical repertoire for me didn't quite perfect fit because I was on smallish side, it was difficult to find the perfect partner.

"I was not a very capable partner. I was not very strong. People like Natalia Makarova, Gelsey Kirkland and a few others, when it was really perfect match, it was a pleasure and a lot of fun."

But he adds: "There was a natural progression in my quest for something different."

The Old Woman is at the Palace Theatre in Manchester from 4-7 July.

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