Baryshnikov/Brodsky – An Endearing Tribute

by Steven Weisz for the Dance Journal | Photo Credit: ©Stephanie Berger

It was the mid to late seventies in New York City when I first saw Baryshnikov perform with the American Ballet Theater (ABT).  He effortlessly flew across the stage with precision and grace that I had not seen before in any ballet.  I remember the audience being ecstatic with standing ovations that seemed to go on forever.  Shortly after, he left ABT but reemerge at the  New York City Ballet where I was able to see him again in a composition with Jerome Robbins entitled Other Dances. To this day, I still have the original program and memories of this larger than life genius of dance.

It was only fitting that I traveled to Toronto this past weekend when Luminato brought him back to the city and country which gave him shelter when he had sought political asylum in 1974, announcing to the dance world he would not go back to the USSR.  The program, Brodsky/Baryshnikov is Baryshnikov’s tribute to the work of his friend, Joseph Brodsky, who died in 1996 at the age of fifty-five. Brodsky is considered to be one of the great poets of the 20th century. Born in Leningrad in 1940, Brodsky’s early years coincided with World War II.  Brodsky’s “freedom-loving nature” was incongruous with the post-war political climate in the USSR and he was tried for social parasitism, banished to the Arkhangelsk region and eventually forced to leave his home in 1972.

Directed by Alvis Hermanis, Brodsky/Baryshnikov takes place in and outside of a somewhat decrepit, faux art nouveau, glass gazebo that resembles the foyer of an apartment building in what one can only suppose as being mother Russia.  Mr. Baryshnikov enters the gazebo from the rear only to emerge through a pair of glass doors at the front. He’s dressed in jacket, vest, and pants, and carries a briefcase, from which he removes an alarm clock, a bottle of booze and a few volumes of what is to be assumed as Brodsky’s verses.  As Baryshnikov, sits upon a bench just outside of the gazebo, he begins reciting in Russian, selections of Brodsky’s poetry.  English supertitles, translated by Jamey Gambrell, scroll across the top of the gazebo all the while.

The majority Canadian-Russian speaking audience was completely captivated and entranced by the spoken words. Indeed, one woman across the aisle was so moved and wept in silence.  For those of us, a bit more linguistically challenged, the Russian cadences created their own rhythm and musicality.  While there was not much distance for the eye to travel between the supertitles and Mr. Baryshnikov’s movements below, it was at times a bit of a distraction and I found myself lost in the multitask of  trying to read and comprehend Mr. Brodsky’s words, listen to the meter of the poems in Russian and follow the subtle expressions and movement of Baryshnikov.  For me, poetry requires greater contemplation. It needs to be read several times and to be felt to achieve meaning and understanding. It was difficult dividing my attention between the words and the movement.  This is perhaps why those who came to see Baryshnikov dance were perhaps a bit disappointed as this tribute was more about the words and memories of an old friend than the movement of a now aging, 70-year-old brilliant dancer.

But there were those moments on stage as Mr. Baryshnikov effortlessly created flowing forms with outstretched arms and twisting torso. In the gazebo, he walked, spun and glided across the floor as only Baryshnikov can do. His movements on a single chair in the doorway of the gazebo, with the shifting of weight, the extension of lines and complete immersion in a single moment were breathtaking.  Throughout the readings, Baryshnikov created subtle movements with both arms and hands. During the reading of Brodsky’s The Butterfly, his hand crossed and fingers fluttered so gently, fixed in the moment and even lighter than the creature he portrayed.

On an opposing bench outside the gazebo, there was also an old reel-to-reel tape recorder, from which we hear a recording of Brodsky himself reading throughout the evening. His voice a stark and eery contrast to Baryshnikov’s live recitations.  But the themes are constant throughout – desolation, the passing of time, aging and mortality.  There were moments that one could easily become overwhelmed during the performance but it was, after all, Baryshnikov! To see him once again on stage and in a truly endearing tribute to an old friend will be yet another memory I will forever hold close.

January 27, 2018
Winter Garden Theater, Toronto



About Steven Weisz

Founder & Editor
While not a dancer himself, Weisz’s love for the arts and dance started as a child growing up in New York City. With parents, who were strong supporters of the arts and part of a community with an incredible array of notable artists in music, dance, theater and fine arts, Weisz’s access and affinity for the performing arts took root. Upon attending college in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania in the mid 70’s, Weisz started performing as a puppeteer, magician, juggler and fire eater as a means of supplementing his income. This soon grew in to what became Rainbow Promotions Inc., one of the largest entertainment and special events producers in the region. It was here that he began to promote and book dance for major events throughout the city. Many of the dancers he worked with in the early days of his company are now major choreographers in Philadelphia. At the same time, Weisz’s interest in computers and the early developments of what is now known as the Internet, led him to also start another company, Delaware Valley On Line, which became one of the first regional ISPs. It was this combination of event production, internet development and event marketing that led him to examine the use of the internet as a means to promote the arts. Dance continued to be a major interest for Weisz and in 2005 he founded as a major online resource to promote dance in the city. It was soon after that the Dance Journal was also founded as a way to provide an outlet for writing on a range of topics that encompass the ever growing and emerging dance community in the region. Weisz continues to run both PhiladelphiaDANCE and The Dance Journal on purely a voluntary basis with no income derived from any of his projects. He is also the Artistic Director of Graffito Works, a unique platform for dancers and performing artists to create site-specific work and to make it readily accessible to the public.

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    • I honestly could not tell you where to find a list of the poems used in this performance. I had extensively searched the web to no avail. The only book I found of some help was Collected Poems in English by Brodsky. It should be available on Amazon.

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