Even before the lights begin to dim, quieting the audience’s animated, mostly Russian conversation, distant choral-sounding music haunts the Emerson Cutler Majestic, an ornate Beaux Arts theatre in Boston. In contrast to the surrounding sculpted golden angels and elaborate scrollwork, a gray enclosed house occupies the otherwise empty stage, no curtain. A gazebo, a solarium, a run-down dacha, a summer house? As stage lights come up, we see a sculptured cupid with loin cloth on the outside of the house, near the roof. A bench in front of the house holds a reel-to-reel tape recorder, while another awaits an occupant. Slowly the structure becomes translucent, then transparent, and we see through multiple, framed panes in the walls and door. Inside the floor is tiled, and on it sits a chair and bucket. Flickering light bulbs create an impression of faded elegance and a mood of nostalgia. We are in the timeless present of poetry, a liminal place that allows vision, but “through a glass, darkly.”
A small, almost elfin man enters the house from the rear, barely visible, and then emerges through a front door downstage, carrying a suitcase. The man has left somewhere, is on his way somewhere. He sits on a bench and opens the suitcase, removes two books, a bottle and an alarm clock, takes a drink, thumbs through pages, reflects. Time passes, slowly.
The man is Mikhail Baryshnikov, Soviet émigré, former ballet dancer, modern dancer, dance presenter, and now actor He begins to read, in Russian, the poems of his dear friend, the late poet Joseph Brodsky. Exiled from the Soviet Union in 1972, Brodsky met Baryshnikov when the latter defected two years later. New translations of the poems by Jamey Gambrell scroll along the top of the set, paced exactly to the reading.
“What makes it so hard,” Gambrell told the Los Angeles Review of Books, “is this is not a translation to be read on paper. The text is important but it can’t be too distracting.” The music, “God’s Chorus of Crickets,” by Jim Wilson (actually a recording of crickets slowed way down) comes and goes throughout the show, with additional music by Latvian musician Karlis Tone. The combined effect is otherworldly, a sort of celestial chorus.
It is January and I’ve traveled by Megabus to Boston from New York with my own dear friend who has recently lost her daughter, so her personal grief is in the air as we sink into the performance’s sense of loss, its Russian melancholy. Both she and I are former dancers and have seen Baryshnikov expand his range from brilliant performance of classical ballet to partnership with Twyla Tharp in modern dance to deeper rendition of character as an actor. I few years ago I saw him in the play Man in a Case, and admired the way he brought a dancer’s kinesthetic awareness to an actor’s more fully motivated movement. In a similar way I try to inform the words I write with my own kinesthetic sense and believe that many writers need to add this sixth sense to the toolbox of sensory detail they gather from the other five.
Soon Baryshnikov leaves the bench and re-enters the house, where he is visible but partly obscured by the framed panes. Does he dance? No, in the usual sense of large gestures, jumps and falls. Yes, with a subtlety suited to the words, occasionally literally related, as when his hands take on a butterfly’s flutter just after he asks, “Should I say that you’re dead? You lived but one day. How much sadness in the Creator’s jest.” One of the dancer’s hands crawls meticulously up the glass, then joins the other to become a pair of wings. The flying hands carry the man in and outside of the house, his voice articulating Brodsky’s meditation on time fleeting.
Later the dancer illustrates “Spinning like a shaman in the room/ I wind its emptiness around me in a ball,” by turning so fast his hair stands straight out. More often the movement is abstract, an embodiment of the spirit of the poem, a way to help the audience get inside it and stay there. Inside the poems, inside that transitional house, we join Brodsky in his search for meaning in the face of exile, while Baryshnikov, paying tribute to his friend, gives physical substance to the voice.
“I said to Misha, you have to imagine you are not alone on stage. There are two people, and there’s something going on between them, some secret,” said the show’s director, Alvis Hermanis, head of the New Riga Theater in Riga, Latvia, where the piece was premiered in 2015. Hermanis spoke to the New York Times from Milan. His idea is vividly illustrated when Baryshnikov’s voice deepens and takes on a rhythmic cadence, almost chanting (all in Russian). “I traveled the steppes that remember the Hun.” Two lines later, to Baryshnikov’s alarmed surprise, Brodsky’s recorded voice takes over, speaking with the same cadence: “I opened my dreams to the convoy’s sortie/ Devoured the bread of exile and left not one crumb.” The tape recorder on stage confirms our sense that Brodsky is present, is being forced from home, even as his voice reaches our ears. This duet becomes the most dramatic moment of the piece for me. The two men do indeed share a secret, and they share it with us.
Throughout, shifts in mood and subject are marked by light changes, evocatively designed by Lauris Johansons. Light transforms the set from a decrepit remnant where sparking switches flare and smoke, into a brilliantly flowered garden house as Baryshnikov begins a new poem: “Let’s look at the face of tragedy. Let’s see its creases,” and continues, “Let’s tumble into her arms with a lecher’s ardor” and “Ah! To inhale her stench of armpits and feces.” The sharp glints of light on the set could be tragedy’s “flabby rubble.” The doors are left open, giving us a clear view of Baryshnikov, who contorts in a chair in a spastic, buffoonish satire on illness and decay. Here Brodsky’s mourning for the short life of beauty gives way to vivid visualization and savage embrace of the ravages of illness and death. Three heart surgeries before he was forty and his rapidly approaching demise had shown him those ravages first hand. This bitter portrayal contrasts with the otherwise elegiac tone of the show.
Suddenly the alarm clock, unpacked from the suitcase at the show’s beginning, goes off with a raucous trill, and Baryshnikov calmly turns it off. Time goes on, and Brodsky won’t let us forget its passing. In a 1982 interview with Sven Birkerts in The Paris Review, he said, “However, if I were to summarize, my main interest is the nature of time. That’s what interests me most of all. What time can do to a man.” He fought time with poetry. In his words, a poem was “a game language plays to restructure time.” In the course of the ninety-minute show, time divests Baryshnikov of his black jacket and vest. He rolls up his pants to the knees and paints his face and chest white, becoming more abstract as he takes on the power of Brodsky’s words.
My friend and I saw the show from the back of the main floor, and I knew I missed some details. Later I looked at close-ups on YouTube and saw one source of the emotional intensity I’d felt. Baryshnikov’s face and hands speak in detail of love and anguish, his expressions and gestures concentrated, as precise as Brodsky’s words; the movements were precise, yet Baryshnikov did not attempt to illustrate the poetry line by line.
“Pantomime” was a bad word for me and my friends when we were young dance students, learning Martha Graham technique from Ethel Butler, a member of Graham’s first company. We despised the set vocabulary of gestures used to convey the narrative in classical story ballets, and we spoke the word with a snarl. Later I studied mime briefly with Etienne Decroux and thought better of my snobbery, but part of the genius of early modern dance was to break the one-to-one link between gesture and word.
In the early 20th century, when Isadora Duncan shed both corsets and shoes to dance the “Marseillaise” in the salons of Paris and the Soviet Union, the boldness of her one bare breast and the text of the song communicated her revolutionary aspirations. Mime was not needed. Costumes and culturally specific movement identified the ethnic dances of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, without the use of words. Martha Graham, who started with the Denishawn Company, developed her own gut-driven vocabulary that eschewed all literal movement to explore emotional depths. In her Letter to the World, premiered in 1940, she paired movement with poems by Emily Dickinson to create a psychological study of the poet rather than interpretation of the poems. Dramatic gesture and emotional expression were found in works of other early moderns as well.
Merce Cunningham danced in Letter to the World and then pioneered post-modern dance by challenging both storytelling and expression of feeling. He strove to randomize connections of movement, text, music and set, as well as order within movement sequences. In How to Pass, Kick, Run and Fall, premiered in 1965, he collaborated with composer John Cage, who accompanied the dance with his own one-minute stories, a collection titled Indeterminacy, read in random order. In 2015 Bill T. Jones paid tribute to this technique with his Story/Time, in which he read his own one-minute stories in random order from an onstage table while his company, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance, performed.
I recently saw a performance, Cage Shuffle, which carried this method to a brilliant extreme. Paul Lazar, co-director of post-modern Big Dance Theatre, listened on his iPhone to Indeterminacy while speaking the stories aloud. At the same time he performed a set movement sequence, so the correspondence of movement to story was entirely unpredictable. More actor than dancer, Lazar did not run, jump or fall, but his precise movements, choreographed by co-director Annie-B Parsons, never faltered in intention or execution, even as they were accompanied by different stories at each performance.
I wish I had seen Isadora dance for her daring and her zeal, and I am thankful for the freedom that she gave to future dancers, but I would not find her work of more than historical interest today. Denishawn’s ethnic borrowings are gems to see in retrospect but are similarly out of date. As a child I was deeply moved by all the Graham works I saw, especially Letter to the World, and for me these works hold up today. In my own work I made use of randomization at least once, in a duet in nine sections in which the order was chosen co-operatively by the performers in the course of each performance, requiring intense attention of each to the other. I found Paul Lazar’s tour de force with Cage’s words and method admirable and thrilling, and I no longer snarl at literal gesture. Mark Morris’ beautifully crafted and musical choreography does not use words but interjects conversational or imitative gestures into a movement phrase: a head shakes, “no” or a dog’s tale wags, and this I love.
Brodsky-Baryshnikov also makes use of small movement and is more theatrical in portraying a character than many minimalist works. Framed and finally obscured by the set, Baryshnikov creates a persona that both mourns and celebrates his friend, a time past and a place abandoned. The piece has brief moments of narrative (as in “I opened my arms to the convoy’s sortie”) but is far from the raw emotion of early moderns. Baryshnikov is not afraid of occasional literal gestures, as with the butterfly or the portrait of tragedy, but his mime is carefully rationed and provides a brief anchor of movement to word. What makes the work different from all of its predecessors and contemporaries in the realms of physical theatre, dance and performance art is its focus on poetry and the reading of poetry. The performance lets the poems speak for themselves, to the performer and to us.
Brodsky wrote in both English and Russian, and this presentation is true to the man. But as a non-Russian speaker, I found it distracting to look back and forth from the performer to the surtitles. Still truer to the man, I think, would have been to speak each poem twice, once in Russian and once in English. The complex poems could only benefit from two hearings, and for non-Russian speakers there would be one literal and one more sonic hearing. I knew some audience members were seeing more than I could as they laughed at the line, “We lived in a city tinted the color of frozen vodka.”
Near the end of the show, Baryshnikov says (still in Russian), “One more poem written when Joseph was 17 years old.” It begins: “Farewell,/ forget,/ and don’t judge too harshly.” Baryshnikov crouches inside the station to paint the panes a cloudy gray, obscuring himself. We realize we will soon lose both of these men. The poem ends: “May many successes await you/ more than are waiting for me./ May the battle resounding in your chest,/ be magnificent and strong./ I’m happy for those,/ who may happen/ to travel/ along your way.” Perhaps Brodsky lost this sense of hope in the course of his too-short and difficult life, but Baryshnikov’s devoted rendering of Brodsky’s work can only increase my faith in the power of word and body to illuminate both the short and the long of life on earth. And if friendship cannot turn back the clock, perhaps, like language, it can give a new structure to time.
From what I know, Brodsky and Baryshnikov did share memories, language, and loss of home, and their friendship must have been a comfort, even if deepest sorrow is too personal to share. I could not share my friend’s loss of her daughter, a talented filmmaker and film scholar with a wonderful future cut short, even though I’d known the earlier death of my own little girl. Each loss at its heart is unique, and friendship cannot touch that deep void within. Still I think my visit was a comfort to my friend, and we rode the bus home together, uplifted by the day.
Maggie Kast is the author of The Crack between the Worlds: a dancer’s memoir of loss, faith and family, published by Wipf and Stock and a novel, A Free Unsullied Land, published by Fomite Press. She received an M.F.A. in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has published fiction in The Sun, Nimrod, Rosebud, Paper Street and others. A chapter of her memoir, published in ACM (print), won a literary award from the Illinois Arts Council and a Pushcart nomination. Her essays have appeared in America, Image, Writer’s Chronicle and elsewhere.