Actions speak louder than words is a maxim Alvis Hermanis can get behind, and has and does. The director of Latvia’s New Riga Theater came to prominence in Europe for a self-described “theater of emotion” that eschews dialogue completely. Works like Sounds of Silence, a dream of how Latvian history might have been altered if a breeze of Sixties’ counterculture had wafted under the Iron Curtain, and Long Life, which trains a microscope on quotidian concerns in a Soviet era communal apartment, at first give the impression of watching TV with the sound off. People go about their business as usual; they just don’t say anything. The difference is that in these minutely crafted plays that rely on hyper-tuned direction (and, in Long Life, mountains of real-life artifacts – audiences were given opera glasses to linger on the details), all the subtleties of meaning ring loud and clear. I saw both plays, as well as a more conventional Vaeter (Fathers) in Thessaloniki, Greece when Hermanis won European theater’s New Realities prize in 2007, and the buzz that started then around his theater direction has propelled him into opera, a genre where bigger and more visual is not just better but required.
So in the highly anticipated Brodsky/Baryshnikov that premiered at the New Riga in October 2015 under Hermanis’ direction and which made its US premiere at the Baryshnikov Arts Centre this week, actions speak louder than words, once again, but that is precisely this intimate show’s undoing.
Brodsky/Baryshnikov is a tribute to the Nobel poet and Russian exile Joseph Brodsky by his younger countryman and friend Mikhail Baryshnikov. The two men inhabited different worlds: Brodsky spent five years in a Soviet labor camp and was forced to emigrate, landing in the world of higher education at Yale, Columbia and Michigan; Baryshnikov was a star of the Kirov Ballet when he ran to freedom in Canada in 1974, and his career as one of the greatest ballet dancers in history needs no further introduction. Yet exile and artistic vision made the two men fast friends and they spoke daily, apparently, until Brodsky’s death in 1996.
Twenty years later, this piece, which is an elaborately staged poetry reading, combines Brodsky’s earthy verses on exile, aging and death, selected by Hermanis, and the opportunity to see the now 68-year old Baryshnikov in what he has called his most personal role on stage. The two form an exquisite duo, a perfect bînome of mutual understanding, affection and fraternal love forged in the pain of expatriation and exceptional artistry. These old friends even seem to hold a conversation, as Baryshnikov reads and Brodsky sometimes responds through the device of a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Over the length of the evening, their voices become indissociable, and the depth of the men’s complicity strikes the show’s most poignant notes. In Brodsky/Baryshnikov, there is a marvelous and unique meeting of souls of a Nobel laureate and the world’s greatest living dancer.
Hermanis’ direction lands in that tête-à-tête like the proverbial fly in the soup. Since the Brodsky/Baryshnikov relationship doesn’t rely on him, he clearly needs to justify his presence here, which he does with an overbearing set and superfluous narrative flourishes.
For starters, it’s surprising that with a dancer of Baryshnikov’s stature on stage, Hermanis gives him precious little room to move; the entire stage is squatted by Kristïne Jurjane’s set: a kind of Art Nouveau-styled glass conservatory, which Baryshnikov crosses through to occupy a small strip of patio downstage. The only open space is within that conservatory so Baryshnikov must step into it every time he’s ready to move from his seated position on a bench, with his books and a bottle of Jameson’s (Brodsky’s poison of choice). Unfortunately, the pleasure of watching Baryshnikov interpret his mourned friend’s verses is compromised by the sight lines of Jurjane’s house. I probably saw 40% of the choreography which is a frustratingly small proportion of the most interesting aspect of the performance itself.
Moreover, and although it may be typical of Hermanis’ aforementioned earlier works where, in the absence of words, meaning was built on a rigorous construction of space and bodies within that field, the director seems very concerned with visually explicating, where no prompts are needed. When Brodsky writes, “I kick off my shoes,” Baryshnikov is asked to do the same. If “drops run down the glass like a face,” the dancer must wash the glass panes. When “ash” is referenced, he finds a tin of it in his satchel and scatters it to the wind, and so on and so forth. On more infrequent occasions, Brodsky’s language inspires a choreographed interpretation. “The body extends the chair, and it looks like a centaur” is the impetus for a majestic pose. Similarly, Baryshnikov gives stirring life to a meditation on a black stallion (or what I could glimpse of it). The doors of his glass cage of sorts were open, thankfully, during his longest choreography, a kind of death grimace performed in awkward contorsions on a chair that were a reminder of why we came to see Baryshnikov. For the rest, Hermanis’ direction feels pat and simplistic when Brodsky’s poetry is the antithesis of both.
Perhaps a more generous explanation could be imagined in which, given the need to keep an eye trained constantly on the English surtitles of the poems, Hermanis is lending us a hand when we choose to look away. But while I appreciated the more unusual surtitling technique used at the BAC, wherein the verses – in projected typeface – scroll slowly across the upper frame of the conservatory (rather than one line at a time across a digital screen), I wonder if a system of closed-captioned hearing wouldn’t be more suited to this show, where our attention is tugged between Baryshnikov’s presence and Brodsky’s language. One delightful touch is added to the production by Jim Wilson’s subtle, nocturnal soundscape of speeded up cricket noises, called, in a perhaps tongue-in-cheek poetic flourish, “God’s Chorus of Crickets.”
If you can overlook Hermanis’ direction and keep your focus trained on Brodsky as remembered by his friend Baryshnikov, the poetry – which is the acknowledged though overlooked subject here (oddly, Brodsky gets only a nominal mention – “based on the poems of…” – in the show’s program) – can ring clear. Brodsky was a poet of great expansiveness who wrote in a simple language of everyday experience, and the collision of the two creates endless surprises – calls to awaken to the duality of existence in both material and immaterial worlds. As a reflection on exile, Brodsky/Baryshnikov is a moving glimpse into another duality of belonging and otherness as experienced and shared by two visionaries who have shaped, via Russia, modern American arts. “I opened my dreams to the convoy’s sortie, devoured the bread of exile and left not a crumb,” Brodsky writes. “Now I am forty. What can I say about life? It turned out to be long,” Baryshnikov reads. And the two agree: “But until my mouth has been plugged with clay, you’ll hear naught from me but gratitude and praise.”
Perhaps theater is where actions always speak louder than words, but when poetry finds the words to illuminate our actions and feelings, there is perhaps no greater art.