A body of poetry: Joseph Brodsky and Mikhail Barishnikov's conversation across the mortal divide

Writer Sara Porter explores the collaborative force of Mikhail Baryshnikov, Alvis Hermanis and Joseph Brodsky.

Considering the collaborative force of Mikhail Baryshnikov, Alvis Hermanis and Joseph Brodsky

Brodsky/Baryshnikov. (Janis Deinats)

It began as a late-night joke between controversial Latvian director Alvis Hermanis and dance icon Mikhail Baryshnikov in a hotel bar in Milan. Why not use the late Nobel Prize-winning Joseph Brodsky's poetry as a dance soundtrack?

A few weeks later, Baryshinikov placed a possibly more sober phone call to Hermanis to set the project in motion. And so began the complex and simple task of staging the work of two artists — one living and one dead — into the 90-minute theatrical event that is Brodsky / Baryshnikov.

Baryshnikov has been a superhero of the dance world for over 40 years. Famous for his defection from the Kirov ballet in late 1970s, he transformed from one thing into another with a kind of magical power — from internationally-renowned ballet star to modern dance innovator, from classical performer to pop culture icon, from artistic director of American Ballet Theatre to the boyfriend of Carrie Bradshaw on television's Sex and the City. He is a man in continual search of new creative horizons.

Mikhail Baryshnikov (left) and Alvis Hermanis. (Janis Deinats)

Brodsky's fame may not match Baryshnikov's pop culture stature, but literary circles hail him as one of their heroes. Hermanis draws on their common ground to fuel the show. A fellow Russian exile, Brodsky landed in New York City when Baryshnikov was busy dancing with every choreographer in town. A deep friendship took root.

The third in the creative triumvirate, director Hermanis, shares Baryshnikov's hometown of Riga. And as artistic director of The New Riga Theatre since 1997, has distinguished himself as an artist with an appetite for risk.

Here the risk is simplicity. There is poetry, movement and stagecraft.

Baryshnikov has been a superhero of the dance world for over 40 years. Famous for his defection from the Kirov ballet in late 1970s, he transformed from one thing into another with a kind of magical power.- Sara Porter

A large glass gazebo nearly fills Toronto's Winter Garden stage. Elegant and decrepit, suggesting the decline of something grand, it is both ominous and light-filled, airy and enclosed, built of paned glass windows with stone-like cherubs holding up the not-quite-white roof. Two simple benches flank the front door which opens to the audience. One is empty and one supports an old-fashioned reel-to-reel tape player.

We gain access to Baryshnikov slowly, as he enters the gazebo from upstage. Dressed simply in a white shirt, dress pants, a vest and jacket and carrying a suitcase, he spends a few quiet moments in the cavernous windowed space — then approaches the audience, sits on the empty bench, whispers the first few lines of poetry. His voice is amplified so we hear his mouth in action, tongue against teeth, emotional suspension of pauses, his saliva. A master of physical feats, Baryshnikov offers his breath and body in a most intimate way. This is how we enter the world of Brodsky's poetry: through Baryshnikov's physical experience of it, sensual and living.

Brodsky/Baryshnikov. (Janis Deinats)

English translation of the poetry is projected in continual scrolling onto the front of the gazebo. The perils of translating poetry are well-known and, as the pre-show request to turn off cell phones was also delivered in Russian, may not have been required by much of the audience. Movement does not need to be translated, and Baryshnikov's animal presence onstage made the projection feel superfluous.

Baryshnikov does remarkably little onstage and there is not much dance. He flits around like a butterfly in the house, stamps like a horse. He stands on a chair, arms extended high. His body looks by turns youthful and old, gravity obviously having worked its decades on his still slender frame. He is energetic, then tired. The poetry is heavy, existential. One poem advises a young man to "get used to the desert." Trouser legs rolled up, Baryshnikov looks like a boy at the beach. He turns around and we see the sag of his shoulders.

What does a superhero do when his powers are in decline? It depends what you think his powers are.

Despite the superlatives, Baryshnikov is a master of nuance. A 70-year old grandfather, it is still his physical presence that rules the day, and the show relies on this power. Baryshnikov is adamant that artists are in the business of communication, and here he is still the master we know him to be.

Brodsky now inhabits the realm — life past life — so keenly described in his poetry. Brodksy / Baryshnikov's is a tender and resonant love letter across the divide of mortality from one friend to another.

Brodsky / Baryshnikov. Based on the poems of Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky. Performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov. Conceived and directed by Alvis Hermanis. Until January 28, Winter Garden Theatre, Toronto.


Sara Porter is a Toronto-based artist, choreographer, performer, vocalist and writer with a distinctive voice and a broad palette. Her writings on contemporary dance have been published in Canada and the UK since 1990. She is author of Peter in Process: Peter Boneham’s sixty years in dance (2010), a biography of the celebrated Canadian choreographer. Her memoir-based one-woman show – Sara does a Solo – recently toured across Canada and the US.