ARTIST ACTIVATED: Shura Baryshnikov on Becoming Joan of Arc for Odyssey Opera, Embodying Motherhood, and Activating Space
A Woman Absolutely Determined Not to Be in the Performing Arts Tell Us How She Ended Up There
Visions of angels and saints led thirteen-year-old Joan of Arc from a simple peasant’s life in Domrémy, northeast France, to the life of a national warrior. Her determination convinced Charles, dauphin of France (soon to become King Charles VII) to send her on a mission to Orléans where, she led troops to victory against the English in a decisive battle of the Hundred Year War. In thirteen battles, Joan won nine. Unfortunately, she was captured by English sympathizers, charged, tried, and found guilty of heresy in 1430. In 1431, at nineteen, she was burned at the stake, standing accused of dealing in witchcraft, daring to directly communicate with God, and wearing men’s clothes. Twenty-five years after her immolation, her sentence was revoked, and, in 1920, Joan was canonized St. Joan of Arc by Pope Benedict XV. Her legend of faith and precocious courage live on to inspire many.
On February 17th the innovative Odyssey Opera of Boston will present, for one night only, Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake). With an eclectic musical score composed by Arthur Honneger and a libretto by the poet/playwright Paul Claudel, this dramatic 1938 oratorio, is part of a full season that Gil Rose, artistic director of Odyssey, has dedicated to various portrayals of Joan. Dancer/actor, Shura Baryshnikov, one of two actors in the piece, will play the heroine.
Earlier this month, deep into preparing for her role, I was fortunate to chat with Baryshnikov about becoming Joan of Arc, her family, and what it means to activate space.
To Purchase Tickets for Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake), February 17, 2018 at 8:00pm
Sanders Theatre click here.
Christine Jowers for The Dance Enthusiast: How did you come to do this role?
Shura Baryshnikov: Odyssey Opera was searching for someone who could self direct through a lot of the movement — someone that they felt could handle the embodiment of this character for the length of time she needs to be on stage. They ended up finding me by doing research on the kind of projects that I do and my background; they got in touch. Things sometimes fall into your lap…
You’ve done other acting roles with movement. I am thinking Oklahoma or Salome. How is this similar to anything you’ve done? What are your challenges?
Baryshnikov: Obviously, I am not singing. It’s a theatrical role. This was written for an actor. Both the role of Joan of Arc and Brother Dominic were written for actors.There are all these layers, including spoken voices that live within a fairly complicated score. I’ve never done an opera, but even though I am not singing, I have to pace myself with the music, make sure that I don’t get ahead, and know when to come in. All of that is pretty intimidating. But this tends to be how I learn. I don’t always learn within safe environments. I throw myself into these projects where I’m outside of my comfort zone. I’m stubborn, and I work hard.
Brave task you are taking on, and one night only.
Baryshnikov: I know. I know. First preview and closing night all in one. It would be one thing if it were a reading where I had the text, but I am memorizing … a really big challenge…
Sorry, am I making you nervous? I didn’t mean to.
Baryshnikov: I am already nervous, there is nothing you can say that will make me more nervous than I already am legitimately. I think nerves… well, my father says, “You have nerves because it matters, and if you’re not nervous the stakes aren’t high enough.” That’s the nature of it.
Do you see any parallels between yourself and Joan of Arc?
Baryshnikov: I relate to the tenacious physicality she must have had. It’s not like she had been raised to be a warrior; she was a maid in a deeply gendered culture. The kind of physical feats that battle would have required, even just wearing armor, the weight of that, riding a horse or getting injured in battle, and having to continue to fight the elements… I’m one of those people who is incredibly physically stubborn and hardworking. I relate to what she must have gone through to achieve what she did. I am interested in intense athleticism, the physicality that she must have found, and how that existed, almost paradoxically, with her youth and her naiveté.
What a project the opera has taken on, a whole season based around Joan of Arc. I wonder what they are trying to say?
Baryshnikov: I can’t speak for Gil or Odyssey, but there’s something in the study of the multiple ways that a character can be represented and dramatized over time, and what she can stand for. There are very different tellings, some more epic and dramatic than others. I can paraphrase something that Gil has said: This is great fodder for operatic writing — epic material: war, battle, triumph, execution and a heroine, with no romantic hook.
Joan could be seen as a symbol to many different people: a warrior, a feminist, a national hero, and she has been used as such throughout history. Tell me about how she is seen in your work.
Baryshnikov: From what I read, Claudel at first declined the project. He wasn't interested in a singular telling of her. In the end, he wanted to tell the story of her faith. The story is retrograded in a sense. He tells it all from one moment — when she is at the stake. Gils has said its almost Freudian in the way that we go back into Joan’s youth and faith and everything that made her who she was.
I haven’t thought about Joan of Arc since grade school, I was surprised to realize that Claudel had access to records of her trial from 1430 to work with.
Baryshnikov: Right, there is record of her trial and I believe her incarceration. We’ve recorded our military history better than we’ve recorded any other history. And we are so deeply fearful of sorceresses and heretics. [Her accusers] were motivated by the fear of her power.
Did I read that your character, your Joan, exists somewhere between Heaven and Hell?
Baryshnikov: I think more of the sense that all this transpiring in an instant — everything that flashes before your eyes [before one dies]. There is complexity. We get a strong sense of what she’s being accused of, but we also get such tender clear moments about where she comes from and her childhood — little songs that she sang as a young girl— it’s deeply personal. The grandeur, is balanced by the reality of this human, with her memories, who is afraid…I love that balance performatively.
Art is a family affair with your dad being, Mikhail Baryshnikov and your mom, Jessica Lange. And you have kids that are artistic too?
Baryshnikov: My daughters are about to turn 13 and 15. I had my kids very young. My first daughter was born when I was 21. A lot of the time that maybe other people would have spent in conservatory, auditioning, and focusing on building a career I was focused on raising kids. I kind of did things in an inside out way, I guess, or backwards. I tend to do things the opposite way.
I wonder if the experience of having your kids earlier has added depth to your career?
Baryshnikov: I am interested in the body stories that we have, and motherhood is part of mine. Motherhood pregnancy, childbirth, parenting —the kind of demand it puts on us physically. Even to drag yourself out of bed in the morning to get the kids to school, cleaning, cooking, hauling things around, nursing… that’s an intense physical life and and such a deep part of who I am.
Will your family be coming to see you in Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher?
Baryshnikov: My mother and father aren’t available for this performance, but the girls will come see it. They’re really supportive. They’re also bored by what I do most of the time. They’re kids and they’re in their teens; there’s only so much interest they have in me, but at the same time, they see how hard I work and how I stress out over these things. I know they can see the drive and they are supportive.
When you were growing up, were the discussions in the house about art and creativity, or more like, “Shura, eat your broccoli.”
Baryshnikov: It was a creative life. I was on the road with my mom as she worked, and my dad as he toured, and surrounded by incredible artists all the time. But they never pressured us at all to be in the arts. In some ways I think they were so wary of doing that, I think they were on the other side of things. I never felt pressure to follow in their footsteps or be “legacy” in anyway…not at all.
I was absolutely determined NOT to be in the performing arts. I am an unlikely dancer/performer in that I have been determined not to perform. I’ve done so many other things, I worked in retail, worked in arts administration, did some design work, And I tried, I really, really, really tried but —it got me in the end anyway. You have to find the thing that makes you happy and I wasn’t happy doing anything else.
This season on The Dance Enthusiast, we are talking about activated artists and what it takes to activate space (work space, home, the community) I am wondering how you activate space?
Baryshnikov: Attention and practice. Practice is a huge and important part of my life … How do I activate space? —through practice, a practice in cultivating attention. I recently came across a Mary Oliver quote that ended with the line “Attention is the beginning of the devotion.” And what are performers other than deeply devoted? There is no other way to explain it — this kind of religious fervor that we have to commit ourselves to these processes, and it begins with attention and practice.