Brodsky/Baryshnikov @ Harris Theater

4 Stars out of 4

There are certain artists that I would watch read a phone book, so massive is their talent and masterful their art that they can move my soul simply by standing in the collective space of a theatre and being.   Since the first moment I witnessed Mikhail Baryshnikov in my youth, I have been in awe of his presence.  Back then, in that other century, he was arguably the greatest male dancer in the world, and it was my joy to see him live and on the screen.  But as his recent spoken word evening Brodsky/Baryshnikov  on view at Chicago’s Harris Theatre demonstrates, his artistry has moved on, and in this awkward US/Russia world, Baryshnikov still has something profound to communicate to our teenaged century.

The 90 minute no intermission evening at the Harris was spare and dark. It is risky to do an evening of poetry by a dead white guy in our information overloaded culture.  For those of us who do not speak Russian there was the ongoing tension: Do I watch the actor or do I read the supertitles projected on the set?  For the predominantly Russian audience on opening night, there was no such issue: his live and taped rendition of Joseph Brodsky’s Nobel worthy poems spoken in sonorous and melodic Russian moved the audience to tears and a standing ovation.   The evening begins with Kristīne Jurjāne’s  evocative set : is it a nineteenth century greenhouse? An ancient station? A cell?. A super moon is projected on the back wall and Baryshnikov enters through the set, imprisoned, isolated and then out and seated. There is a suitcase, a clock, the bottle of booze, a cigarette—the essential props of Russian existence. The evening moves slowly in deep reflection.  It is a work custom made for these dark days of February when the weather is Siberian.

 At 70 Baryshnikov is still virile, lithesome and can say more with a gesture or a look than most of us can say with a lifetime. He continues to take artistic risks and use his star power and name recognition to create meaningful art which would not be possible for artists without his resources and wide ranging experimentation. He calls attention to moments and ideas we might have missed.  His face is a profound portrait of his life. As he peels off layers of clothing, literally and figuratively leaving himself exposed to us as he moves through the evening, his body speaks volumes with its unvarnished view of the aging process. Brodsky/Baryshnikov is an existential work about moving on, about the inexorableness of our mortality, about loss. And here, Baryshnikov is the Clown, in the most iconic way: he even pulls out the greasepaint and wipes it on his arms and chest.  The Clown who makes us laugh even as he intimates the ultimate tragedy of human life: that we die. That we lose the ones we love.  

Joseph Brodsky and Mikhail Baryshnikov were friends. And they were both exiles from a culture that was as much a part of them as their skin, a culture that threatened to stifle their artistry. Baryshnikov defected, Brodsky was stuffed on a plane and shipped out.  Brilliant and highly successful in their new immigrant lives, they never stopped being body and soul Eastern Europeans  (Baryshnikov is technically Latvian—and Riga, his birthplace, is where this work premiered).  Directed by Latvian theatre director Alvis Hermanis, this piece is unabashedly and bleakly Eastern Block. And as our youngster nation grapples with who we want to be, this evening taps something ancient, sad and meaningful in a culture currently influencing American lives.  It is a work that sent me home to reread the poems of one time United State Poet Laureate Joseph Brodsky. If this Russian Immigrant could become the poetic spokesperson of our nation, and could train a generation of poets as he guest taught at places as corn-fed as University of Michigan, then there is hope for those of us who embrace The Other in these tense times: it is the immigrant who becomes the resource for the creation and amplification of our culture, for the distinctly American life of the mind.  

 If you have a chance to see this work, touring since it premiered in 2015, do not miss it. Brodsky/Baryshnikov played at the Harris Theatre for Music and Dance in Millenium Park on February 2 to the 4th, 2018.  For more information go to www.harristheatrechicago.org  or to  http://cherryorchardfestival.org/brodsky_baryshnikov/