Baryshnikov on Brodsky
In 1975, the poet and future Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky wrote of his friend—and arguably the world’s most famous ballet dancer—Mikhail Baryshnikov, “How splendid late at night, Old Russia worlds apart, / to watch Baryshnikov, his talent still as forceful.” The two artists had met the previous year at a party thrown by composer Mstislav Rostropovich and remained close until Brodsky’s death in 1996. Forty-three years after Brodsky wrote that poem, Baryshnikov’s talent is still as forceful as ever, although he’s now turned from classical ballet to his artistic directorship of the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York, along with theater and acting. His new project is a one-man show, Brodsky/Baryshnikov, based on Brodsky’s poetry and directed by Alvis Hermanis, director of the New Riga Theatre in Latvia. Described by the Paris Review as “closer to theater than ballet, a meditation, in part, on aging and death,” this piece blends Brodsky’s text with Baryshnikov’s movement and is performed entirely in Russian, Brodsky and Baryshnikov’s mother tongue, with English subtitles. This interview was conducted by email in January, just prior to the February 2, 2018, opening of Brodsky/Baryshnikov at the Harris Theater in Chicago.
You first met Joseph Brodsky in 1974 in New York, when you were 26 and he was 34. You had just defected from the Soviet Union, and Brodsky had exiled two years before. Yet you certainly had known of him prior to this—you had even known some of the same people among Leningrad artistic circles. How familiar were you with Brodsky’s work at the time?
I was a late bloomer and didn’t start to read his poetry until I arrived in Leningrad at age 16. I knew of him and followed his so-called trial for hooliganism in 1964 before he was sent to a tiny village in the north (Norenskaya) for Soviet-style labor and reeducation. I’m sure the authorities thought he would disappear there, but that solidified him into an underground star. At the time, the great Anna Akhmatova said something like, “Look at the biography they are making for this red-haired one!” Every thinking person was reading his poetry after that.
When you met, was there an immediate connection?
Yes. We had several close mutual friends, and when we met at a New York party, it was obvious that this first conversation wouldn’t be the last. I was smitten by his charm and wit and knew I had met an extraordinary person.
You were friends with Brodsky for 22 years and have said elsewhere that you spoke nearly every day. Did you discuss each other’s work? Did he have an interest in ballet or dance?
His love was for words—cerebral athleticism, I’d say, and I didn’t try to keep up with that, but we still had plenty to talk about. He wasn’t too interested in theater or dance but was fascinated by questions related to choreographic structure and its connection to music. He could talk about anything, really, and every conversation was an education for me.
What drew you to Brodsky’s poetry as a young man? And what continues to draw you to it now?
His bravery. His willingness to expose his own process of self-discovery in words and phrases was magical to me—and still is. As an artist, he was the most uncompromising individual I ever met in my life.
What are your favorite Brodsky poems?
That’s not a fair question. A poem you love when you are 20 may not be the poem that excites you at 40 or 60, so I cannot answer this. I’m still discovering.
Over those years of friendship, did you ever speak about collaborating? Was Brodsky interested in poetry as performance?
No. Never. He believed poetry should be read silently to one’s self—preferably with a cigarette and a shot of Irish whiskey.
When director Alvis Hermanis first suggested Brodsky/Baryshnikov, what was your reaction? Did you immediately say yes?
It took me some time to agree to do it. I was skeptical that it could do justice to Joseph’s work, but I believed in Alvis’s talent, so I decided to take the chance.
Brodsky wrote the majority of his poetry in Russian, although later in life he experimented with poetry written in English and was involved in translating his Russian poems. When it came to making Brodsky/Baryshnikov, did you always know it would be performed in Russian?
That was my first conversation with Alvis. We agreed it had to be in Russian.
The intersection between dance and poetry isn’t new—from Mallarmé to Frank O’Hara, poets have turned to dance for inspiration, and choreographers ranging from Martha Graham to Jerome Robbins to, quite recently, Lauren Lovette have looked to poetry as starting points for their work. Yet the forms seem so distinct: one is made of words, the other of bodies. Do you see a connection between the two forms? Or are they at odds with each another?
This is a complex question, and I’m sure there’s a book to be written there, but I’ll go so far as to say that they are both forms of communication, and both can inspire a huge variety of interpretations. Joseph used to say that poetry really boils down to putting the best words in the best order, and certainly the best steps in the best order is important in dance, but both forms are vessels for human emotion at its most unwieldy.
Although not a dance piece per se, Brodsky/Baryshnikov includes moments of movement, of dance. Are these improvised or choreographed?
There is no choreography. We are using ideas from Japanese butoh and kabuki, some ideas from flamenco, some ideas from paintings. It’s a very mixed bag, with moments that are fixed and others that are more fluid.
When it came to creating movement for this piece, where did you start? What was your process and was it different from other projects you’ve worked on?
We tried to approach the movement the way one reads a poem—anything goes, and any interpretation is valid. The test was that it felt true to our experience of Joseph’s words. That was a unique process for me.
In the course of the play, the audience hears both your voice and Brodsky’s voice reading his poetry, almost in conversation. In Russian, Brodsky’s poetry is formal, musical, engaging with rhythm and rhyme in ways that don’t always appear in English translations. Did you aim to highlight that quality in your reading?
Not really. There are moments when Joseph’s voice and cadence are part of the piece, and I briefly mirror that, but Alvis and I wanted the poems to be understandable and meaningful using theatrical means, not imitation.
Dance is usually an oral tradition passed from teacher to student or from choreographer to dancer. Performing a dance can be a way to make that person live again. Poets’ work survives them on the page and comes to life only when read, either aloud or silently. Brodsky/Baryshnikov seems to play with both ideas: the recitation of Brodsky’s poetry and your embodiment of his mannerisms as a way to access the man. Do you think of this piece as a conversation between the two of you? Did you aim to become him in some way?
Alvis has explained this piece as a spiritual séance. I am not trying to embody Joseph or have a direct exchange with him. I’m having a conversation with my own experience of his work, and Alvis is the medium.
In addition to Brodsky/Baryshnikov, you’ve also performed recently in Robert Wilson’s Letter to a Man, a play about dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. As with you and Brodsky, Nijinsky’s early artistic training and work happened in St. Petersburg, but the crux of his too-short career was in the West. How has embodying these two legendary artists made you reflect on your own life and career?
Maybe I chose these two projects because I felt I might have an internal understanding of these people, that our lives might collide a bit—historically and personally—and that would be a good use of time. It is, of course, a huge responsibility to try to do justice to Joseph’s work and to explore Nijinsky’s psychosis, but these two projects have been the highlight of my career so far.
W.H. Auden, who was instrumental in bringing Brodsky to the United States in 1972, wrote of him that, like those of “most lyric poets,” Brodsky’s interests are in “personal encounters with nature, human artifacts, persons loved or revered, and in reflections upon the human condition, death, and the meaning of existence.” Are these also Brodsky/Baryshnikov’s interests? Or, more interestingly perhaps, are they your own?
Joseph worshipped W.H. Auden, and if this quote could be considered an accurate description of the motivation behind Brodsky/Baryshnikov, then I could not feel more honored. I think even Joseph would be intrigued and amused by our efforts.
Born in San Francisco, Jennie Scholick earned a BA from Princeton University and a PhD in comparative literature from UCLA. Her research focuses on relationships between poetry and dance in the mid-20th century. She is currently the associate director of Audience Engagement at San Francisco Ballet.