Q & A: Shura Baryshnikov on Working With Odyssey Opera as Jeanne d’Arc

By David Salazar

Shura Baryshnikov grew up in an unusual situation. As the daughter of Jessica Lange and Mikhail Baryshnikov, she knew that taking a career path in the arts would undeniably lead to comparisons.

In a recent talk with OperaWire, she spoke about this major challenge in her life.

“I definitely had to overcome the fear of being compared to my parents and their great professional and creative success,” she noted. ” In the end, we need to do the work that is most fulfilling. We need to do the work that gets us up in the morning and makes our hearts beat a bit faster, even if there are some hurdles to get there.”

She is doing just that these days, working with a wide range of organizations as a dancer, choreographer, educator, and actress. Among the companies, she has worked with as the Bridge Repertory Theater, the RISD Museum, Providence Fringe Festival, Institute at Brown for Environmental and Society, and the Moving Arts Lab at Earthdance.

She is currently slated for appearances at the Odyssey Opera in Boston, taking on Honneger’s “Jeanne d’Arc au Bucher.” Here are her thoughts on her latest project.

OperaWire: What interested you about taking on this challenging role in the Honegger oratorio?

Shura Baryshnikov: I am always interested in a challenge.  I am an interdisciplinary artist who finds a sense of renewal and reinvigoration from participating in projects of different mediums and modalities.  This is the first opera project that I’ve done, and I appreciate how each of these new experiences stretches me as a performer.

OW: Who is Joan of Arc for you? What does she represent?

SB: Joan of Arc is complex; she isn’t one thing.  She is naïve and studied, young and wise, gentle and violent, likely full of faith and full of ambition.  I love that complexity.  Often we seek to understand characters by simplification and even stereotyping based on the most common denominator in a narrative, but I enjoy the idea that even these characters that exist in legend can be as dimensional as we are.

OW: Tell me a bit about your process in preparing this presentation. How do you usually approach a score or text, how long does it take to truly learn it? What other steps do you take in getting into character? How was learning this piece different from other pieces?

SB: I have prepared for this – and continue to prepare for this – in the best way I know how.  I have been listening to the score, creating audio files of the text in English to study with, following it on the page, researching Joan of Arc and other representations of her.  I have had to do much of the preparation on my own so far, which is the nature of this medium, and I am greatly looking forward to being in the room with the other artists and Odyssey Opera’s director/conductor, Gil Rose.

OW: What is the greatest challenge in portraying this character in this particular work?

SB: The physicality will be a wonderful challenge.  As a very physical, movement-based actor, I am interested in the life she carries in her body.  She is a young, country girl with relatively little life experience, but she is also a great warrior who has sustained battle wounds and incarceration and great fear and trials.  I am interested in how that all comes alive in how she takes up space.

OW: What are the unique challenges of Honegger’s music?

SB: I keep coming back to the polyphonic nature of what is happening in the music.  The layers are dense and varied and complex. I have listened to the score quite a bit in my preparation, but I know that there are going to be great challenges once I am in the space and hearing it all in real time. It is going to sound different. I am going to have to learn to listen in a different way, and I won’t have a ton of time to make those adjustments!

OW: What do you hope audiences take away from this particular performance? What do you want them to learn about Joan of Arc?

SB: With these epic figures in history, whose stories have been told by different artists through time and even appropriated for social and political efforts in different eras, we each have a different idea of who we think this character is.  Each audience member will have a different thought or impression of who Joan is and what she represents.  I feel as if my responsibility is to represent both Gil Rose’s vision and Honegger and Claudel’s vision of this woman.  I want to be true to what is on the page.  We are, in fact, telling their telling of Joan, and I want to do that to the best of my ability.

OW: What are upcoming projects for you?

SB: Besides teaching full time, I always have multiple, professional projects happening.  My company, Doppelgänger Dance Collective, is producing an evening of improvised dance at Brown University the first weekend March. DDC is also working on two large dance works for a performance at Green Street Studios in Cambridge in late summer.  This spring, I will also be doing a Shakespeare production in Providence.  I love working.  I love the challenge and feeling each part of my creative spirit fed.



InterviewsStage Spotlight