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