‘I deliver the pizza,” laughs Mikhail Baryshnikov. These unlikely statement from the celebrated performer sums up how Baryshnikov views his role in the one-man show Brodsky/Baryshnikov.
The production, directed by Latvian Alvis Hermanis, is a play whose script is comprised solely of the famed Joseph Brodsky’s poems.
“There is no illustration of the poems,” explains Baryshnikov. “People in the audience have to imagine what it means. I just deliver.”
Baryshnikov, who will celebrate his 68th birthday later this month, has all the grace and charisma of a man 40 years his junior.
He arrives dressed in black knit jodhpurs, a black T-shirt over a white button-down shirt, and suede oxfords. His movements, down to the smallest gesture, reveal a rare form of physical expertise.
Seated on a balcony of the 18th floor of the Dan Panorama Hotel in Tel Aviv, Baryshnikov speaks about the joys and challenges of this production. The show is making its first stop at the Suzanne Dellal Center before playing at the Baryshnikov Art Center in New York City this March.
“It is one of the most intense projects I’ve ever done,” he says. “This is theater, and theater of a different kind. I did several productions in the past with different directors and languages whether it’s Russian, English or French. But this is poetry.
“There’s a great quote from a movie I saw recently. It goes, ‘truth is like poetry, and everyone hates poetry.’ “These are poems and you have to create a theatrical journey with them. It is not a like a person that goes in front of an audience and recites poems. This is an hour and a half of storytelling. It has a beginning, middle and end with bridges in between.
I am alone on stage and it requires a lot of focus. We didn’t have a choreographer because there is no dance per se although it is nonstop movement. It is a theater of physical impulses, and the voice of course.”
Though not his idea (Brodsky/Baryshnikov is Hermanis’ brainchild), the show is deeply personal if not biographic. Brodsky/Baryshnikov comes across as a type of memorial for a lost friend.
“When you present a personal relationship on stage certain ethical questions emerge. Brodsky was such an iconic person.
He is a pride of Russian culture and Russian language and beyond that, he’s a world figure. Here we aren’t paying tribute to a poet laureate. He was a man first.”
At times it appears that Baryshnikov has stepped into Brodsky’s shoes, invoking his telltale voice and intonations. Then Baryshnikov slips into the gorgeous chamber onstage, designed by Kristine Jurjane, apparently returning to his own persona.
There is a sense of longing, of lost times and of the need to revisit past conversations.
Baryshnikov explains that Brodsky had an enormous impact on him, over a long period. The two artists, both Latvian- born Manhattan transplants, met at a party in 1974.
“I was nervous when we met the first time. It was a party. It was one of the first weeks after I arrived in New York. It’s a long story but we had a lot of mutual close friends in Russia but we never met in Russia personally. He was smoking and I recognized his profile. He said, ‘sit down. We have a lot of things to say to each other.’ I said, ‘Oh yes.’ We left the party together and walked a long ways back to downtown.
I accompanied him to where he was staying with friends for an hour or so. We exchanged numbers. After that we started to become very good friends.”
From that point on, the two kept in close contact. Baryshnikov and Brodsky made a point of pounding the pavement of their new city together.
“We lived in different parts of town. He lived on Morton Street, I lived on 12th Street. We walked around New York a lot, especially downtown. There were a lot of different conversations about life, less about art and philosophy. I wasn’t that educated. I was looking up to him all the time and trying to match his intellect,” explains Baryshnikov. “It was 1974 and he passed away in 1996, so we were friends for 22 years. It was a very meaningful relationship, for me at least.”
Though their mediums seldom met, Baryshnikov kept up on Brodsky’s writing and Brodsky made certain to attend Baryshnikov’s performances.
“He always asked what kind of music we were dancing to tonight. It was more important than the kind of dance. He loved music.”
Over the course of the years that he tromped around town with Brodsky, Baryshnikov transformed himself from a star newcomer in the American ballet world to a recognized actor to an influential voice in the international dance community.
“I left classical dance for neoclassical dance and then modern dance and theatrical projects at the same time. I’ve been overlapping and leap-frogging all this time.
I didn’t give myself the chance to get too swamped into the depression or nostalgia for those moments when I danced romantic ballets. Whether it was working with Balanchine, Ashton, Mark Morris, Twyla Tharp, Martha Graham or Paul Taylor.”
These days, Baryshnikov finds himself engaged with a new kind of movement, one in which the leaps and jumps of his past are replaced by a more internal, subtle form of dancing.
“I miss the extraordinary pleasure of the working body. Of going into the studio and sweating, drinking and sweating again. But I don’t have the right to miss dance because I keep dancing.”
Aging, death and legacy are all themes that emerge from Hermanis’ curation of Brodsky’s poems. It is unclear whether Baryshnikov’s grappling with mortality is a function of his participation in this project or his motivation for it.
“Mortality is an interesting phenomenon,” he sighs, looking out over Tel Aviv.
“We have to really connect the retirement of body with [the] attempt to keep the sanity of your mind and [a] lucid, philosophical attitude. I have to convince myself to forget the question of when it might happen.
Tomorrow? Ten years from now? Even 10 years is too close. I’m lucky that I’ve lived so long and that I’m still working.”
As for the choice to open the world tour of Brodsky/Baryshnikov in Tel Aviv, Baryshnikov explains that it was an easy decision.
Following the premier in Riga, Latvia, Hermanis and Baryshnikov agreed that the show needed to a soft landing with a predominantly Russian-speaking audience.
“This is the first time I’ve done a theatrical project with 100% Russian text. I knew that I wanted to present it in a country that had a strong Russian-speaking population and Israel was first in my mind. I grew up with so many Jewish classmates and friends that left Riga in the ‘60s and ‘70s. When I arrived for the first time here I felt totally at home. There’s an extraordinary audience of young people, which is really uplifting.”
The demand for Brodsky/Baryshnikov was so great that the Suzanne Dellal Center was forced to open the dress rehearsal to students of local acting schools. As the performer made his way onto the stage, an electric excitement sparked throughout the theater. Though just a rehearsal, the performance closed with a raucous standing ovation, giving a hint at what the upcoming shows would hold.
Brodsky/Baryshnikov will be performed January 21, 22 and 24 at the Suzanne Dellal Center, Tel Aviv. For tickets and info: www. suzannedellal.org.i.