Mikhail Baryshnikov’s new “anti-ballet.”
At the New Riga Theatre, before a recent performance of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s new one-man show, Brodsky / Baryshnikov, women combed their hair and adjusted their furs in the yellow lobby’s mirror-paneled walls. Some had camped out overnight for tickets when they first went on sale in September; seats sold out almost immediately and promptly began circulating on the black market for many hundreds of euros. Wealthy Russians jetted in from Moscow and Saint Petersburg for the event—the director Alvis Hermanis and Baryshnikov are both persona non-grata in Russia, so the entirely Russian-language performance will not stop in Russia during its upcoming international tour.
The well-heeled crowd greeted one another with “Ciao, ciao” before slipping into their native tongues, the theater a burble of Latvian, Russian, English, and French. They were all there to see the return of “their” prodigal son, but the performance they witnessed was something more akin to the return of the prodigal son as old man. Mikhail Baryshnikov is, after all, sixty-seven years old. He is no longer a prodigy, but emeritus.
“Those who expect the typical Baryshnikov pirouettes and splits … are likely to be disappointed,” Latvian critic Undine Adamaite wrote in Diena, a Latvian daily.
Indeed, Brodsky / Baryshnikov, which begins its international tour in Tel Aviv this winter before debuting in New York, in spring 2016, is far closer to theater than ballet, a meditation, in part, on aging and death. “It’s anti-ballet, it’s anti-choreography,” Hermanis said. “What Misha does with the body … it’s just like spontaneous electricity.” Hermanis and Baryshnikov did not hire a choreographer for the performance, which relies on improvisation. “These things are not fixed—each evening they’re slightly different … It’s not the possibility of dance, but the impossibility of dance.” There’s even a script, a departure from the ballets of Baryshnikov’s youth. This one is composed entirely of the poetry of Joseph Brodsky, Baryshnikov’s good friend, who died in 1996. The two could be said to star together in Brodsky / Baryshnikov, even if only one man enters the theater.
The audience took a collective breath when Baryshnikov first appeared on stage. He looks not the athlete he once was but a gaunt, bedraggled traveler, suitcase in hand, seated on a wooden bench below the broken fuse of a dilapidated Art Deco apartment with large, dusty window panes. He doesn’t speak. He makes the audience wait, Jim Wilson’s operatic “God’s Chorus of Crickets” playing in the background. Baryshnikov opens his suitcase, pulls out an alarm clock, some poetry books, and a bottle of Jameson (Brodsky’s favorite). He picks up a book, starts flipping through, whispering to himself, as if trying to pick one to read aloud. He finds one, and takes a swig.
Brodsky couldn’t remember the first time he met Baryshnikov. “We had a few rather close friends in common in Leningrad,” he said in conversation with Solomon Volkov at his apartment on Morton Street in the late seventies. Baryshnikov was also a close friend of Brodsky’s daughter, a fellow dancer; he even drove her home from a Leningrad hospital after she gave birth. But the two men only met many years later, in New York, after Baryshnikov defected from the USSR in 1974.
For Baryshnikov, the memory of their first meeting is all too clear: one evening in 1974, the composer Mstislav Rostropovich organized a party in New York in honor of the visiting Soviet writer Alexander Galich, and took the recently defected Baryshnikov, then in his midtwenties, along. Brodsky was there. “He was sitting, smoking, very red, very handsome. He looked at me, smiled, and said, Mikhail, take a seat, we have a lot to talk about,” Baryshnikov recalled in a Russian-language interview with a Riga magazine in October. “He gave me a cigarette, my hands were trembling … For me, he was a legend.”
After dinner, the two men went on a long walk through the West Village, found a Greek restaurant open late to continue their conversation. They exchanged numbers. Soon, they were talking nearly every day. Brodsky gave Baryshnikov reading assignments, introduced him to his friends—Czeslaw Milosz, Stephen Spender, Susan Sontag. “He kind of put me on my feet,” Baryshnikov recalled. “That was my university.”
Brodsky dedicated several of his poems to Baryshnikov, who carries his friend’s work with him, and resurrects their dialogue on stage. Hermanis, who began developing the idea for the production fifteen years ago, described it to Latvian public media as a “spiritist séance.” He and Hermanis were both born in Riga, and it wasn’t by accident that they chose that city for the debut run of what Baryshnikov has called “the most private and important work I’ve done in my life.”
“Riga is becoming like a Hong Kong for Russian culture,” Hermanis said. Over the past few years, several prominent Russian journalists and artists have emmigrated to the Baltic country to escape state censorship at home. There’s always a stir when Baryshnikov comes to town—the Latvian press laps up the “prodigal-son motif, the return-home motif, the ancestral-roots motif,” as Joan Acocella put it in her 1998 account of Baryshnikov’s first trip back to his hometown since his defection. Back then, Baryshnikov didn’t harbor any affection for the city. (“The minute I stepped again on Latvian land, I realized this was never my home. My heart didn’t even skip one beat,” he told Acocella, describing his Russian parents as “occupiers.”) In the intervening years, something seems to have changed. This summer, his personal art collection was exhibited as part of the cultural program of Latvia’s presidency of the European Union, and Baryshnikov described himself as a “Russian Latvian” in a recent interview with a Riga magazine.
“You returned home—so what? / Look around, to whom are you still needed? / Who are your friends now?” the bedraggled Baryshnikov reads in Russian at the start of the performance, hunched over on a wooden bench. “How good, as you hurry home, to realize your words are not truthful, and how hard it is for the soul to change.” He flips through a book of Brodsky poems, whispering, and looks up at the audience. Baryshnikov reads on, sometimes rocking back in forth, as if in prayer, gaze toward the ceiling. On the bench across from him, a radio begins playing a recording of Brodsky reciting: “There’s someone wandering the ruins, shuffling the leaves. Or maybe the wind has come back like a prodigal son, and all its letters were delivered at once.”
There’s dancing, yes, but only in the sense that Baryshnikov displays his talent for “pure body metaphysics,” as Brodsky told Volkov he so admired. Baryshnikov embodies his friend’s poems; his hands shake as they did on the day they met. And once more, Brodsky gets Baryshnikov back on his feet. He stands up, hand fluttering, “spinning like a shaman in the room,” as he convenes the séance, Brodsky’s words booming through the theater. At about thirty minutes into the show, Baryshnikov is no longer content to channel his old friend. As he recites Brodsky’s poem “May 24, 1980” —his fortieth birthday; “Life has been long, and sorrowful—but until I die, I’ll be nothing but grateful for it”—the radio on the opposite bench starts to play. Brodsky’s voice fills the theater, overtaking that of Baryshnikov. It’s a somber reunion.
“Greetings to my old age!” Baryshnikov recites. He takes off his jacket, rolls up his pants, unbuttons his vest, revealing a chest and arms and legs that do not look like the youthful body he had when he left Riga as a teenage prodigy. “My breath stinks and my joints creak; we’re not yet talking about my shroud, but the future pallbearers are at the door.” After investigating his reflection in the set’s glass windows as the poem plays on, Baryshnikov begins perhaps the most elegant zombie dance ever performed, his hands stiffly stretched, knees bent, eyes rolling.
“Life—is the sum of tiny movements,” he reads toward the end of the performance. Laughing, Baryshnikov breaks the script. “Oh, da.” And just before he takes leave of the stage, he pauses to address the audience. “One last poem. 1957. Written when Joseph was seventeen years old,” Baryshnikov says. “Farewell, and don’t judge me too harshly. Burn my letters, like a bridge … Be strong and fight. I’m happy for those who may travel along the way with you.”
The audience gave him a standing ovation, but the chattering ladies who had arrived so full of glee were quiet. A grave silence rolled over them as they filed out of their seats.
Linda Kinstler is a Marshall Scholar at the University of Cambridge.