The late Russian poet Joseph Brodsky and dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov were long-time friends, even though the Nobel Prize-winning poet was not a fan of classical ballet. Brodsky also didn’t have much use for theater. According to Baryshnikov, his friend once visited the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. “He told them that Shakespeare wrote his plays for just reading and not for staging. He said, ‘It’s so much better to lie down on your couch, have a little whiskey, and read “Hamlet” and imagine the characters,’” Baryshnikov says.
Brodsky also didn’t like the way actors read his poetry aloud. He felt that his poetry, like “Hamlet,” was best read while reclining, with or without whiskey. So it is with some irony that the renowned dancer teamed up with Latvian director Alvis Hermanis to create “Brodsky/Baryshnikov,” a 90-minute solo piece in which Baryshnikov reads and recites selections from Brodsky’s work, which plays Jan. 17-21 at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. He connects the poems with short bursts of movement — not necessarily choreography, but physical reactions to the poetry.
Brodsky once dismissed classical ballet as “The art of better days!” — in a poem dedicated to Baryshnikov. What would he think of this theatrical endeavor? “Who the hell knows?” the dancer says during a telephone interview from New York. “He would love the set. He would be amused to hear me recite.”
Baryshnikov first discovered Brodsky’s poetry in 1964, when, at age 16, he moved from his native Latvia to study ballet in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). Brodsky, an upstart poet, had recently been tried by the Soviet regime for “social parasitism.” He was sentenced to hard labor in the Arctic, even though the trial was a travesty. A transcript of the proceedings circulated in underground culture, and the young Baryshnikov read it and also read whatever poems he could get his hands on. “I was struck by the power, stability, beauty of the rhyme,” Baryshnikov says.
He was later introduced to Brodsky at a party in New York, shortly after he defected from the USSR in 1974. Brodsky had been expelled from his native Russia two years earlier. “We talked all evening. We went for a walk. We exchanged telephone numbers,” Baryshnikov says. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship that lasted until Brodsky died in 1996 at the age of 55. They talked almost every day and became partners in a Russian tea room on 52nd Street in New York. Brodsky’s last words to his friend were “Be kind, Mysh. Be good.”
Baryshnikov, of course, is perhaps the best-known classical ballet dancer of all time. After defecting from Russia, he became principal dancer at the New York City Ballet and went on to become artistic director of the American Ballet Theater. He branched out into other genres as well. In 1978, he was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor in “The Turning Point.” He explored modern dance with the White Oak Dance Project and also ventured into more acting, including a stint on “Sex in the City” as Carrie Bradshaw’s in-between boyfriend. He supports new work through the Baryshnikov Arts Center in Manhattan, and he last appeared in Boston at ArtsEmerson in 2014 in “Man in a Case,” an experimental piece adapted from the stories of Anton Chekhov.
Baryshnikov, needless to say, has had an eclectic career. But Hermanis was the one who conceived the idea for the Brodsky show. The acclaimed director, known for his opera productions in Europe, had tried to recruit the dancer to perform in his production of “La Damnation de Faust” at the Paris Opera. That didn’t work out, but he later suggested that the two collaborate on a solo piece featuring Brodsky’s poetry. “I remember Misha saying, ‘Something is not finished in my relationship with Joseph. It is not complete,”’ Hermanis says during a Skype interview from Lausanne, Switzerland.
The director describes the show as a “séance,” a sort of spiritual conversation between the two men. “That is the irony, because I don’t believe in those things,” Baryshnikov says. “We are trying to find the essence of Joseph’s poetry and his voice.”
Hermanis told the dancer to ignore the audience. “It is my conversation with Brodsky, not the audience,”
Baryshnikov says. “It is a conversation with a dead person.”
The poems from Brodsky’s prodigious oeuvre were selected by Hermanis. Since Baryshnikov recites or reads the poetry in Russian, with surtitles in English, the two men knew they could only include simple poems that are easily digested. “It is not a secret that the poetry of Joseph Brodsky is highly sophisticated, and it is not easy to grasp those texts for the first read. In the theater, you are obliged to listen,” Hermanis says.
The director also chose poems that explore the passage of time, memory, fear of death. “I would not say it is dark, but somber,” Baryshnikov says. “The poetry is about human destiny in the world, about grace, civility, and love.”
The dancer does not attempt to imitate Brodsky, who he says sounded like a rabbi when he read his verse aloud, reciting in a musical, sing-song voice. Hermanis deliberately chose poems that have a sensual, musical quality, and Baryshnikov bridges his readings with movement, referencing such traditions as Japanese Kabuki and Noh theater, as well as flamenco. He sits or stands still while reading the poetry. In between poems, he moves in and out of a glass gazebo, which is reminiscent of 19th-century Viennese or northern Russian architecture.
Brodsky’s poetry is difficult to translate, although he did work on translations with poet Richard Wilbur. “It was very clear that this cannot be performed in any other language, no matter how good the translation,” Baryshnikov says. “It is a senseless exercise, unimaginable for me.” He assumes that “at least 50 percent of the audience will be Russian-speaking.”
The other half of the audience accesses the poetry, he says, through the movement and the surtitles. The piece features a reel-to-reel tape that occasionally broadcasts Brodsky himself, reading his poetry. Hermanis says he wants the audience to ponder deep existential questions and to internalize the poetry in a physical way. “Those texts really have a physical impact, not only sensual,” Hermanis says. “I compare it to an inner massage. Someone is stretching you and squeezing you from the inside.”
‘It is my conversation with Brodsky, not the audience. It is a conversation with a dead person.’
As for the language difference being a barrier, Hermanis likes to recall a woman who saw the show and tweeted immediately after. “She wrote, ‘Thanks to “Sex in the City,” I found out who is Mikhail Baryshnikov. Now thanks to Mikhail Baryshnikov, I found out who is Joseph Brodsky. Now I am searching for the books of Joseph Brodsky.’ That is an anecdote for real life.”
Presented by Cherry Orchard Festival. At Cutler Majestic Theatre, Jan. 17-21. Tickets: From $45, 617-824-8400, www.cutlermajestic.orgPatti Hartigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.