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Interview with Mikhail Baryshnikov
Legendary dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov is widely considered one of the greatest ballet dancers in history. After beginning his career at the Mariinsky Ballet in Leningrad he defected to Canada in 1974, later joining the New York City Ballet before becoming artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre. His work as an actor has seen him receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor alongside a Golden Globe nomination for his role in the film 'The Turning Point', and is know to a new generation of fans thanks to his recurring role in Sex and the City.
He returns to London to star in Brodsky / Baryshnikov, a one-man show based on the poems of Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky. Conceived and directed by Alvis Hermanis, the piece is described as "an emotional journey deep into the poet's visceral and complex compositions". Performed in Russian, Brodsky's mother tongue, Baryshnikov recites a selection of his long-time friend’s poignant and eloquent works.
We caught up with the celebrated performer during rehearsals for the London run which comes to the Apollo Theatre from 3 to 7 May 2017.
Dom O'Hanlon: Your career has been extensive in a wide range of disciplines. What has brought you to this new production of Brodsky/Baryshnikov?
Mikhail Baryshnikov: It was more than 50 years ago when I first read Joseph’s poems and they hit me hard. Alvis Hermanis invited me to do it and I was honoured to work with such a remarkable director. I couldn’t say no
DOH: The piece has been staged in multiple countries – what do you expect audiences in London to take from the work?
MB: The play is an intimate experience – a conversation between me, and my beloved friend - and so I hope they can feel included in that intimacy. The goal is always to stay true to the director’s original vision, so I think it’s fair to say that the venue doesn’t drastically affect the play one way or another.
DOH: How has your relationship with Joseph Brodsky and his work developed throughout your life, and what does it mean for you to be performing his work?
MB: I first met Joseph Brodsky at a dinner in New York in early autumn 1974. During the following twenty odd years we talked to each other every week. It is no exaggeration to say that the meeting with Joseph had a momentous impact on me. I knew some of his poetry and admired him as a poet, although his poems were not published in the USSR and only spread clandestinely. There is no doubt that he is one of the few poets – perhaps the only – from the Soviet generation on par with the “magnificent four” of the pre-revolutionary one. I try to be truthful to myself and to be as truthful as I can to my friend. Yes, it’s a responsibility, but there’s great joy there.
DOH: As a dancer and actor, how do the two seemingly opposite disciplines work together in performance?
MB: That was in fact a requirement of the director. I don’t feel a difference. Patience and discipline unite them, and I use the same instincts so I can’t really make a distinction between the two. In this show there’s no dance per se, but there’s a lot of body language so that was the bridge to bring my dance background into the drama of the play.
DOH: You've worked with choreographers such as Jerome Robbins, Alvin Ailey and Fredrick Ashton to name just three throughout your career. What's the best piece of advice that you've been given?
MB: To be truthful to myself.
DOH: What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
MB: I don’t really think that way! I don’t like to put things in those kinds of boxes.
DOH: How can readers, and indeed audiences, relate to Brodsky's poetry?
MB: That’s the thing, Joseph’s work is extraordinarily relevant to the present. We also have an excellent translation by Jamey Gambrell, a former student of Joseph’s. In my opinion, she captures his humour, wit and wisdom so the play is accessible to everyone.
DOH: What does the added sense of theatricality give to his verse rather than existing on the page?
MB: Fire, death, anxiety, love, fear…it’s all there.
DOH: What continues to motivate you as a performer?
MB: The immediacy, the terror; it’s the ultimate challenge
Brodsky / Baryshnikov tickets are on sale to 7 May 2017.