Mikhail Baryshnikov in Brodsky / Baryshnikov

Posted: May 14th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Mikhail Baryshnikov in Brodsky / Baryshnikov

Mikhail Baryshnikov, Brodsky / Baryshnikov, Apollo Theatre, May 7

Mikhail Baryshnikov reading the poetry of Joseph Brodsky (photo: Janis Deinats)

In the foreword to a 1973 collection of Joseph Brodsky’s poems, WH Auden wrote, ‘One demands two things of a poem. Firstly, it must be a well-made verbal object that does honour to the language in which it is written. Secondly, it must say something significant about a reality common to us all, but perceived from a unique perspective.’

For Auden, Brodsky evidently passed the test, even if he was reading the poems in English translation (by George L Kline). As he explains, ‘A really accurate judgement on a poem as a verbal object can, of course, only be made by persons who are masters of the same mother tongue as its creator. Knowing no Russian and therefore forced to base my judgement on English translations, I can do little more than guess.’ Sitting in the Apollo Theatre watching a performance of Brodsky’s poetry by Mikhail Baryshnikov with surtitled translations by Jamey Gambrell, I felt in very much the same position, but I left the theatre enamoured of Brodsky’s poetry and desirous to get my hands on a copy of his Collected Poems in English.

Baryshnikov recites the poems in their original language, but it is his body, the repository of Russian ballet training and years of sublime performance, that translates Brodsky as much as Gambrell herself. Auden’s ‘verbal object’ has become the body of the dancer while his ‘unique perspective’ is the articulation of that body in space. But this is no metaphysical conceit: Brodsky and Baryshnikov shared both a common language and a close friendship enhanced by their experience of exile; this not only provides the starting point for Brodsky / Baryshnikov, but colours the entire performance.

Brodsky was born in Leningrad in 1940, began writing poetry at the age of 17, was tried for ‘social parasitism’ by the authorities, was banished and then forced to emigrate in 1972. Baryshnikov, eight years younger, defected to the West in 1974 while on tour in Canada and met Brodsky in New York the same year. As he writes in the program, ‘From that night on, our conversation continued, unabated, for over twenty years. We talked, if not every day, then every week. He phoned on the evening of January 27, 1996 to wish me a happy birthday. A few hours later, he was no more.’ Brodsky wrote nine volumes of poetry in Russian and English, two plays and numerous essays, all of which earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987. The two men instinctively understood and admired each other’s art, so that Brodsky / Baryshnikov is not simply the recital by a great dancer of the poetry of a great poet (in Auden’s terms), but the merging of their two forms of art into another dimension of expression.

Kristīne Jurjāne’s set resembles a fin-de-siècle wood and glass pavilion or entrance hall, what the French might call a ‘salle des pas perdus’ (a room of lost footsteps), where the paths of Brodsky and Baryshnikov meet and cross. Waiting for a new coat of paint, its wiring exposed and sparking intermittently, the structure has seen better days, like the past depicted in Brodsky’s poems. The front doors open on to a narrow strip of stage with a bench on either side; it is here that Baryshnikov becomes indistinguishable from his friend, carrying his exile’s suitcase, rolling a cigarette but unable to find his lighter, taking out his glasses with a flicker of frustration at the process of ageing, enjoying a swig of his favourite Jamieson’s whiskey and reading, sometimes whispering his poetry as if he is in the act of creation or hearing it for the first time; you can almost feel it on the breath of his voice.

Clutching the rations of exile,
Embracing a jangling lock,
Arrived at the place of dying,
Again I am wagging my tongue…¹

Like the consummate performer he is, Baryshnikov takes on the character he is portraying so completely that we lose him. His entrance through the pavilion is his passage into the life of Brodsky and his exit 90 minutes later along the same path is his release out of it (though it is not hard to imagine the two of them coming together again after a performance and swapping notes over a drink and a cigarette).

When Baryshnikov is dancing inside the pavilion, there is not a pirouette or a sauté in sight; his body language is quietly understated, inspired by the forms of Kabuki, Butoh and flamenco filtered through the mastery of his own physical repertoire. We see his body interpreting a poem as we hear it recorded by Brodsky himself (signified by the old reel-to-reel tape recorder that sits on one of the benches). The two friends are in the same space at different times, setting up a palpable movement between both past and present and between poet and dancer that fluctuates constantly as it builds a living image of the poetry. Director Alvis Hermanis (artistic director of the New Riga Theatre in Latvia) has spliced together these temporal, spatial and kinetic worlds with a skill and sensitivity that perfectly match the colour palette of Brodsky’s words to that of Baryshnikov’s physical expression. The effect is the poetry of not one but two.

¹ From Clutching the Rations of Exile…(literal translation by Jamey Gambrell)

With thanks to Sophie Kayes, executive producer of Bird & Carrot, producer of the tour of Brodsky / Baryshnikov, who very kindly and unflappably came through with a press ticket for me on this final, sold-out performance of the run.