Mikhail Baryshnikov on his friend Joseph Brodsky, pre-performance nerves and retirement

Yes, the name Mikhail Baryshnikov is synonymous with ballet and if you go to see Brodsky/Baryshnikov being performed by the former ballet superstar and expect dancing, you will be disappointed. But if you attend this one-man performance to see a friend pay a tribute to another, you will be in for a treat.

Photos used with permission, photographer Janis Deinats

Photos used with permission, photographer Janis Deinats

Joseph Brodsky was not only a Russian poet and Nobel Prize winner, but also a close friend of Mikhail Baryshnikov, ever since the two met at a party in New York in 1974. Baryshnikov had read Brodsky's work as a young man and it had a profound impact on him ever since. As a matter of fact, Baryshnikov still travels with Brodsky's work and enjoys referring to them again and again. “It speaks to you at different times, you always discover something new about his words” explains Mr Baryshnikov during a telephone interview from New York. Joseph Brodsky passed away in 1996 from a heart attack but his voice can be heard during Brodsky/Baryshnikov, directed by Alvin Hermanis. In this show, Mikhail Baryshnikov performs in a glass gazebo and recites the poems of his late friend in Russian. But don't worry, if you don't speak any Russian: Subtitles are available. Mr Baryshnikov himself calls this "a theatre journey through the works of Joseph Brodsky". Buckle up for this journey and put on your listening ears.
Spectacle spoke to Mr Baryshnikov last week about friendship, critics and stage jitters.

Spectacle: You have performed Brodsky/Baryshnikov since 2015. How has this play evolved over time? What has changed for you?
Baryshnikov: The comfort level for me has changed, this is poetry in the theatre and it isn't the easiest task. I try to forget that the audience is even there. Usually, you react to the audience in a play, but this is not the kind of show that you perform for an audience. The director, Alvin Hermanis, set it up as a spiritual conversation between two people and one of them deceased and the other barely alive.

S: You and Brodsky met for the first time in 1974 and have been friends ever since. What characterised your friendship? What was he like?
B: He was an adult in the room, not because he was older, but because he was a genius. A man who experienced a lot: He was imprisoned and he was exiled. He was a self-educated man, who knew everything about everything. He had very high moral standards. He was demanding and kind, just an extraordinary man. We were just friends.

Photos used with permission, photographer Janis Deinats

Photos used with permission, photographer Janis Deinats

S: Joseph Brodsky passed away in 1996, why did you wait 20 years until you brought his work on stage?
B: I never thought this would be possible until I was approached by Alvin Hermanis. We met a few times and he knew Mr Brodsky and myself were close friends. So he came up with this crazy idea. I liked Alvin as a theatre and opera director, so I twisted my own arm and we started working.

S: Brodsky/Baryshnikov is performed in Russian. Would it not reach more people if it was performed in English?
B: No, that would be counterproductive. Brodsky's poems were written in Russian. And most of the audience members are Russian speaking or people interested in Russian or Slavic language and culture. Language will not be a problem. There is just not one person sitting on stage reciting poetry. There is movement, there is light. There won't be dance per se, but there is a lot of body language.

S: Joseph Brodsky has written lots of poems, how were the ones chosen for the play?
B: The selection of the poems was done by the director, he selected poems from very early in Josephs career, when he was 17-18 and started to write. Many of those poems are actually a conversation about destiny, mortality, God and love poems. It is a very personal journey for me, we were close friends for over 20 years. His poems were extraordinary and I think there is an obligation to the written word. It is not just gibberish you pick somewhere. They rhyme and you have to make music out of it.

Photos used with permission, photographer Janis Deinats

Photos used with permission, photographer Janis Deinats

S: Does criticism bother you?
B: I would be lying if I said, I don't care what people think. I don't want people to come and see my performance and consider it a waste of their time. If people come and sit through two hours, I consider that a compliment.
Critics come and go, but this poetry will still be there for the next century. I'm not the first one who recite those and I hopefully won't be the last.

S: Do you ever get pre-performance nerves?
B: Always! I'm a nervous performer. It doesn't matter if I dance or perform, it is always the same butterflies in my stomach. But thankfully they go away after a few minutes.

S: You have been on stage for decades, do you see yourself retiring completely? Or is that a thought you dread?
B: Actually, that sounds more and more appealing to me, but there are always good projects that are offered to me. How can I say no?

If you can make it to Zurich, don't miss Mikhail Baryshnikov in Brodsky/Baryshnikov at Schauspielhaus Zurich between June 23rd - June 25th, 2017. The performance will be in Russian with German translations.
Get your tickets right HERE.

To catch Mikhail Baryshnikov in any performance in your area, keep an eye on the official schedule over at Baryshnikov Arts Center.