Baryshnikov’s Attempt at a Moving Tribute

Israelis got to see the show before its New York premiere, but Baryshnikov’s celebration of Brodsky’s poetry got lost in the theatrical translation.

Mikhail Baryshnikov performing in Tel Aviv.
Janice Deinats

The audience that filled the Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theater in Tel Aviv, most of whom were Russian speakers, may not have known how lucky they were: The solo performance of Mikhail Baryshnikov, dedicated to the poetry of Joseph Brodsky, may have come to Israel after its world premiere in Riga, Latvia (the city of Baryshnikov’s birth, and where the director of the production, Alvis Hermanis, is the director of the New Riga Theatre), but they were seeing it before its “premiere” in New York, where Baryshnikov has worked since he exiled himself from what was once the Soviet Union.

This same Soviet Union banished Brodsky too, after it imprisoned him for a few years, and in the United States the ballet dancer and poet became close friends. So the Brodsky/Baryshnikov program is mostly a work of love and a tribute by Baryshnikov to memory and work of Brodsky, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987, for which Hermanis has created a theatrical framework.

On the stage is a room/cage with many windows; Baryshnikov comes out of it to the front of the stage, sits on a bench, takes out of his suitcase a number of books of poetry, a bottle of Jameson Irish whiskey (Brodsky’s favorite drink) and an alarm clock. On the bench on the other side of the stage is a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Baryshnikov speaks Brodsky’s poems; reads some of them from the book, and some are heard from recordings, seemingly in Brodsky’s own voice. There are special lighting effects, some of which are meant to be a result of an electrical short circuit.

Russian speakers have the fullest experience of course, especially those who know Brodsky’s poetry. In Riga the audience did not need the screened simultaneous translation and most of the Tel Aviv audience didn’t seem to need it either. Regrettably I did need it and it was shown at the right pace, but not under ideal conditions of visibility (the Hebrew translation is by Yacov Lakh). The audience in New York will see an English translation by Jamey Gambrell.

In addition to the words of Brodsky’s poems in Hebrew on the screen, and their sound in Russian, two more lines danced in my head. One was not from Brodsky but from William Butler Yeats: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” While Baryshnikov may not dance here, he certainly makes the evening happen. The second is from Robert Frost: “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” I don’t mean the translation into Hebrew (I am unworthy of evaluating it), but the translation of the language of poetry into the language of the space of the theater.

Mikhail Baryshnikov reads the poetry of Joseph Brodsky, at a performance in Tel Aviv.
Janis Deinats

Baryshnikov is a dancer and a phenomenon; there is no denying his charisma on stage. But here he is basically illustrating the poems with movement. I assume this is the result of a joint effort with Hermanis. The movement and the precise stage work is implemented with great thought and meaning, but they make the poetry superfluous. Or perhaps the reverse is true. It’s true that a poem talks about a body that extends the shape of a chair into a centaur, but when Baryshnikov holds the chair behind him to illustrate the half-man, half-horse, it borders on the ridiculous.

And when the poem is about a black horse, then Baryshnikov’s movements in the room, his leg kicking as if he were a horse, are admirable of course, but his effort to animate the horse with his body – which is impressive, even when he exposes parts of it, smeared with suntan lotion that he wipes off – is a pale illustration for the words of the poem. Perhaps if I hadn’t been so busy reading the translation and could have been swept away by the poetry’s resonance I would have been captivated. Unfortunately, I saw how theater is helpless before the power of words.

In my opinion the most lovely, persuasive, and emotional part came toward the end, when Baryshnikov just sat on the bench, wearing a suit with a vest but no shirt. He wasn’t performing or modeling, just reading poems from the book; he wasn’t even swaying as if in prayer, but only responding with facial expressions to Brodsky’s bitter, disillusioned and depressing words about a homeland one cannot return to, about aging, the body’s deterioration, and death.

The audience of course, gave the performance a standing ovation, though I imagine it would have done so even if Baryshnikov had come with a different text and performance. He is concurrently working with director Robert Wilson on “Letter to a Man,” based on the life of ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Perhaps we will see it here soon as well.

“Brodsky/Baryshnikov,” an evening based on the poems of Joseph Brodsky. Directed by Alvis Hermanis. Scenographer: Kristine Jurjane. Lighting: Gleb Filshtinsky. Performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov. Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theater, Tel Aviv. In Russian, with a Hebrew translation.