Mikhail Baryshnikov: No use running around

Take note – story published 8 years ago

Mikhail Baryshnikov, renowned dancer, took the stage on Thursday at the New Riga Theatre in Alvis Hermanis' Brodsky/Baryshnikov. LSM's Russian-language service held an exclusive interview with Baryshnikov, who has sent Rīga into a frenzy of anticipation and re-sellers reportedly selling tickets to the premiere for €1,750.

LSM: Do you know that people spent the night in tents before the theater to get tickets to your play?

Baryshnikov: I know. I'm flattered.

"You're coming home again. What does that mean? Can there be anyone here who still needs you?" [Trans: George L. Kline, from Brodsky, J. Selected Poems, 1973]

Have you felt now how much you're needed here?

Well, "needed"... This is a demand of another sort. It's the demand for a play, the thing you do. But in the literal sense — no, I don't feel it. Even when I came back here after many years — I didn't have this feeling. I don't consider Latvia my homeland. But there's a cemetery here. My mother's grave.

Does it bother you much that you are known on the streets of Rīga?

I try not to attract attention. 

But are there any places where you don't need to hide under your cap and glasses to stay incognito?

Sometimes. It's pleasant to stroll the street or go to the museum in a laid-back manner. There are places like that. I won't tell you where. (Laughs)

The street, the museum, but what about the theater?

I go to the theater. Especially when I'm in London. I check the plays that come to us to Broadway. In Chicago, in Minneapolis there are sometimes good performances too.

Does it interest you purely as a viewer or as a professional?

I grew up in the theater. My mother dragged me to theaters no matter what the language was... She even went to see Latvian drama without any reservations. It was very interesting to her. Vija Artmane, for example — she adored her, but didn't know what it was she was playing. Vija Artmane is crying, but my mother is asking: "What is she crying about? Tell me!"

I start telling her, everyone is hushing us, hushing — shut up please, it's the theater. As for me — I was 7, 8, 9 or perhaps 10 — I keep telling in a loud voice, what she [was crying about]. I spoke perfect Latvian, I understood everything. I said, see, she is crying because this young man left her... But everyone keeps hushing us. It was the same at the movies. I recall some movies with Haralds Ritenbergs, black and white, he was playing a fisherman of sorts. My mother was whispering: "What is this about? Who said this? What's that over there?"

At school, naturally, it was ballet and opera. We spent days and nights at the theater. We watched everything, from Swan Lake to The Queen of Spades to Wagner. It was simply more interesting inside than outside or at home. For the last three years we lived in Jugla, where we moved from the center. I studied on the tram, on the way there and back. I arrived late at the evening, and departed early in the morning. 

Starting from 1964, I started frequenting the theaters in Leningrad. The Bolshoi Drama Theater, Alexandrinsky, Vladimirov's place [Igor Vladimirov was the head of Lensoviet Theatre] and Komissarjevsky. It was more interesting for me to go to drama... Well, no, I also went to philharmonic, but not that often. Right away I met theater people who were much older than me. They pulled me into theater. I met Peter Naumovich Fomenko, he was Petra for me back then. We became friends somehow... up until the end of his life. One time I even brought his already Moscow-based theater together with the Lincoln Center — War and Peace, and a play [Egyptian Nights] based on Pushkin with Kutepov. And Family Happiness after his death.

I had the closest friendship with Lev Dodin. He was married to [actress Natalya] Tenyakova. After that we are meeting very often, sometimes in Paris, in New York and elsewhere... on a neutral ground. With Viktor Novikov [now the artistic director of the Komissarjevsky, and head of literature department there in the late 60s] and his Lara and Katya. I carried Katya from the maternity hospital on my hands. I carried many from the maternity hospital in a taxi. 

Joseph [Brodsky's] daughter, Anastasia Kuznetsova, I carried her from the maternity hospital as well...

When I and Joseph met in New York, I said — take a seat, we have a lot to talk about... and whom to talk about.... He says, oh, yes. That's how our friendship started.

You didn't meet in St. Petersburg, did you?

No-o. We had very many acquaintances in common, Azadovsky, Gena Shmakov, Masha Kuznetsova [Marianna Kuznetsova, mother of Brodsky's daughter Anastasia], Garik Voskov... But they were afraid to introduce me to him. They were saying, not yet, you'll have problems.


Well, first of all, they said, if they discover you know Joseph, they won't even let you to Bulgaria. For pity's sake... It was the late 60s, the early 70s. He had just returned from exile. 

And, of course, they would not have let me go anywhere if they'd know that we have any sort of friendly relationship, well even if we had a normal one. Many were held up like that. Though I had no idea to stay in the west, to go there. Never. But all the same [I went there].

And how? I saw him once. He was reading, as I recall, translations and a few of his own poems. We arrived at the VTO [the pan-Russian Theater Society], Gena Shmakov took us there. Rein and Naiman were there, he was there and perhaps someone from St. Petersburg, perhaps Kushner. It was a poetry night.

They were reading. I went behind him down a spiral staircase, and someone asked him, Joseph, perhaps we could dine here at the VTO restaurant? He all but twitched and said, what do you mean? I was right there, literally behind him. His face said, how could anyone think that he'd... For him VTO was bourgeois. All the hustle and bustle, all the leather jackets...

He tried to keep away from these things. And he didn't love theater. Sincerely. He didn't understand it, and he didn't want to.

And he didn't like to be in a crowd. But in circles he knew, with his own people and interesting women, he frequented them gladly. And he often didn't leave alone.

Judging by the photographs, he was very handsome in his youth.

He was handsome. Definitely a handsome man. His son Andrei, when he came to his funeral... [When I] saw him — here's Joseph, a complete copy. A proud face. Profile. He had a serious magnetism in his make-up, and imperfect, it was his physiology. Very powerful.

Alvis Hermanis said that this play is a returning. Yours — back to your homeland, and your friend. 

It was his idea, not mine. He offered me a project that I could not undertake for various reasons, then I offered something, which he didn't like, and a little that and this after that... And then, all of a sudden, this. "What's this? How is it possible?" I went to visit him, but he was in Milan at the time, staging The Soldiers at La Scala. I was in Italy as well. We met after the play. It was a long talk.

And I knew, of course, that he's a very principled person and that he wouldn't [suggest this] just like that, without any perspective. I was sure that he knows what he's talking about. In his tender age, I mean that tender age when he started reading Joseph's poems, this poetry became for him — in a metaphorical sense — a school of manhood. He began to grow up mentally by way of Joseph's poetry. That's what he said, these were his words. I believed him.

We worked in Zurich for a few days. Then we started reading for hours and hours to each other on Skype. Then he came visiting to the Dominican Republic, we have a summer house there, for a few weeks with his family. Then in New York for a week, then here for a few weeks. So we had enough time.

We read everything. He did the selection.

He has a principle — if someone is sitting in the middle of the hall and doesn't understand what the discussion is about from the first time, it has to be changed. Thus went away all the references to the glorious past. Naturally, Brodsky wasn't on a level of [Marina] Tsvetaeva, who has to be read with a dictionary, at least if you're uneducated like me... Really, I am not joking.

Tsvetaeva has endless references to the Greeks, to philosophy, to whole of the Italian culture, to Germans, for example.

Well then. Alvis took Portrait of a tragedy —

Ah, but to press ourselves against her cheek, 
her Gorgon coiling hairdo!

Some people know about Gorgon, some don't. But altogether he left only the simplest. Otherwise it's useless. That's why it turned out that [what remained were] lyrical poems, urban motifs, and metaphysics. 

Time... Time preoccupied Joseph as well. Space. The conception about the emptiness of the universe — and his personal universe too. And death. Death is the greatest theme here [in the play] I hope - the one that is looked at, the one that is heard. Joseph was really afraid of death from his very youth. 

He wrote about his death at 20. And he foresaw his death. If you recall Nature Morte...

I sit on a wooden bench
Watching the passers-by —
Sometimes whole families
I am fed up with the light.

This is a winter month.
First on the calendar. [Trans: George L. Kline, from Brodsky, J. Selected Poems, 1973]

He was afraid of death. Especially after the first operation, the second. He's smoking, and he stops on every corner — "Let's breathe a little". To breathe — it means to smoke another cigarette. He smokes it, then says — "Let's walk a little more, a little more, a little more..."

The century will be soon over, but I'll be over even sooner.
This, I am afraid, is not a question of intuition.
Rather — it is the influence of non-existence on existence;
of a hunter on his prey, so to speak, —
whether it be the heart-muscle or a brick. [Trans: George L. Kline, from Brodsky, J. Selected Poems, 1973]

He was afraid of death — as we all... I am afraid too. I want, after all, to live a little. Moaning — only to live, to live, supporting your coldness with a shoulder.

Только жить, только жить, подпирая твой холод плечом.
Ни себе, ни другим, ни любви, никому, ни при чем.
Только жить, только жить и на все наплевать, забывать.
Не хочу умирать. Не могу я себя убивать. *

And that is only the beginning. He wanted to make everything. To [have time] to do everything. But a mass of responsibility hung over him. He had to go one place or another, to Washington, [as] poet-laureate, or to write book reviews...

The only place where he could get real rest was Sweden and Venice. Especially Venice. 

But they got to him everywhere. When he worked in Ann Arbor, in Michigan. Students and professors, calls from New York, from everywhere. And he says to me — I have to deal with this. And he dealt with it.

Well he could have put all of it aside, after all.

He couldn't. He couldn't.

Let's build a monument to lies

Brodsky said that you read more than him, that you know many poems.

Nothing of the sort. He exaggerated. He only said it to poke fun with Volkov [Brodsky talked a lot about Baryshnikov in a famous interview to Solomon Volkov, who has lived in Riga] Some things he gave me right away. At first, when we met, after we were introduced... It's a long story. 

We went to somewhere in China Town in a car. He says, here, read this - we had just moved to saying [the informal Russian] 'you', Mark Strand, an anthology of his was just released. I tell him — no, I cannot read English, I don't know how. He says — well, in a year or so you'll be able to read him and get acquainted with him. He is a wonderful gentleman, [Brodsky] says. 

And sure enough, somehow I walked up to him and... Well, he always socialized with interesting people. Even then, right at the beginning — Susan Sontag, Czesław Miłosz, Derek Walcott, Steven Spender...

[Laughs] And naturally I am sitting [there] like an idiot. And only afterwards I started to understand something... He was asking, what I had learned, what I knew.

I even recited some poems to him, Pushkin, Mandelstam — Joseph sometimes asked to recite something by heart, sometimes himself. "So, what do you know from my [poems]?" [Laughs]

And what poems of his did you know?


Слепые блуждают
Ночью намного проще.
Перейти через площадь.**

These are the first lines, which I [remember] from 1964... He had been sent away already. But I had a girl friend, we were sitting at the same school desk — Olga Evreinoff, one of the Czech Evreinoffs, she had a Czech passport but she spoke perfect French, Czech and Russian, and she secretly, under the table, shows me these almost transparent sheets... I reached [for them] and she says, be careful. The teacher is reading a history lesson, while we, under the table... I say — "Will you give it to me?" But she says — "Only until tomorrow". I wrote them down.

Поставим памятник
в конце длинной городской улицы
или в центре широкой городской площади,
который впишется в любой ансамбль,
потому что он будет
немного конструктивен и очень реалистичен.
Поставим памятник,
который никому не помешает.***

Most of the poems were written in blank verse. Only the Stanzas employed rhythm. Not the others.

But it was understood what it was about. [Laughs.] "Let's build a monument to lies"! Wow!


Was it hard to utter the first word from the stage?

In the early eighties.. No, not that.. Franz Kafka “Metamorphosis”, a play that wasn’t written for me: originally Steven Berkoff made it for himself when he was young in England, re-made it twice, afterwards he made it for Roman Polanski in Paris — in French, of course… I was completely astounded. Roman played it remarkably. Just remarkably. I saw it for two or three times in a row. We were dining with him, me and a couple of other people, and he said - “See, you have to take it and play it” - “But I’m not an actor” I said - “No, no, no. You can do it. I recommend that you do it. In English, be it in London or New-York!”. And I got sort of excited. His producer,Lars Schmidt, a Swede, the last husband of Ingrid Bergman, was sitting right there.... And so, kudos to Polanski, I stepped on the stage for the first time. Immediately on Broadway.

Of course, it was scary. Kafka, my accent and my English was tolerable, but you couldn’t compare it to how I spoke even two years later. The plays were different, so were the reviews, I even got an award of some sort from the critics, but in that time we were playing 7-8 times a week on Broadway. At the and, I was ignited.

At that time I was leading a theatre [American Ballet Theatre], even put on some productions, so every day, till four or five, I was working, and afterwards.. Difficult times. See, we played ‘tandems’ - two on Wednesdays — two on Saturdays, one  on Sunday — one, then one day break, and again...

But I was paired with wonderful performers, Laura Esterman, René Emergenoy — do you know him? He’s a man of theatre, but he’s featured in a lot of movies and TV productions, really unique, he has a striking voice, he lives in Los-Angeles and New-York, so we’ve still been meeting. He sort of inspired me and put me on my legs, gave me hope that I have to play, I have to continue.

And at once it began — Rezo Gabriadze came, a friend of Yuz Aleshkovsky from the times of  Raschke, he got me to do the play "The doctor and the patient or Forbidden Christmas" - man-machine, madness - that was his theme. Then Beckett with Joanne, Akalaitis: "Short stories" in the New York Theatre Workshop. Then Chekhov, "Man in a case" and "About love" - Annie-Bi Parson and Paul Lazar had put these stories together in such a peculiar manner..

Then Krymov, of course. [Dmitry Krymov staged the play In Paris for Baryshnikov based on Bunin's prose]. It was then that I spoke Russian and French from the stage for the first time. It was pleasant to be able to act in my mother-tongue. And I’m quite skilled in French, so..
I enjoyed the role. He has a wonderful collective. Anna Sinyakina. They’re so wonderful, skillful, strong and united. It’s a pleasure meeting them.

Then - Bob Wilson. The Old Woman and now Nijinsky [a new play about the great Russian dancer, called Letter to a Man]. Who knows, maybe I missed something.

Do you speak Russian in Nijinsky?

In English and Russian, same as The Old Woman. I must note that in Nijinsky Bob recorded other voices too - his own, a woman's voice (it’s the voice of Lucinda childs, an actress and choreographer, with whom he made Einstein on the beach [an opera by Philip Glass]. Lucinda was his ‘eyes’ when we were thinking about movements, she corrected some things. We hadn’t a choreographer as such in The Old Lady, in Nijinsky I had to take care of it myself.

When Alvis saw Nijinsky (I suppose that he didn’t like it, but that is normal, seeing as he had his own opinions on the matter and here, he couldn’t relate to it, he said that it’s similar to to the feeling a woman gets, seeing her dress on another woman), we decided that we’ll do everything on our own here as well. There must be a natural reaction to ‘the metre’. It shouldn’t be brought from the outside. I had to feel it for myself. So did he.

We fought about what’s what and, when he says “Yes, right here - yes”, and I say “Yes”, it’s really a ‘yes’. We don’t have any doubts. ‘Yes’ means - I’m right.

What’s the suitable way for you to transfer the emotion - are they words or movement?

- With uncertainty, I guess (laughs). Fear is such a sweet feeling. Not absolute fright, and yet..
I must accent that I’m nervous in any sort of performance, be it dancing or speaking with the audience..or TV interviews..I must admit, that it annoys me to a certain degree. Especially the first few minutes.

And so, fear is indispensable. Once again, just like Joseph has it.

Мир больше не тот, что был
прежде, когда в нем царили страх, абажур, фокстрот,
кушетка и комбинация, соль острот.
Кто думал, что их сотрет,
как резинкой с бумаги усилья карандаша,
время? Никто, ни одна душа.
Однако время, шурша,
сделало именно это.****

I think that if an actor or a dancer doesn’t feel anything when walking onto the scene, doesn’t feel worries due to his inner task — it’s similar to emptiness. When he’s totally sure of himself. Then it’s like a politician’s speech. While art… It’s the first stroke, the prelude of a composer, when he starts writing something… or the first aria for a soprano… To reach the first note — it’s not that easy. And it’s the same in drama theater.

Do you reproach yourself for something that you haven’t danced, haven’t played?

No, I have never had that. I was being offered numerous projects all the time, and I am being offered all the time. Choosing correctly is the crucial thing. I won’t be naming projects that have dragged on for months, but they weren’t that successful. About those of which you think — I should probably have done something else. But you learn from failures.  

Have you had any failures?

I have. I have. Of course I have. Well, not failures, necessarily, or bad reviews.

Sometimes the reviews were good, but I didn’t like the play.

Or there was something off in the relationship with a director or an actor.

When you choose projects, what’s more important to you: the topic, the circle of people involved?

Well, naturally, I don’t do plays with those I don’t know. Never. Sometimes, of course, the nut cracks and it turns into a lowly thing of sorts. It’s only natural. But we were communicating with Alvis before [this play].

I know Latvian people. After all, I grew up with them.

He [Alvis Hermanis] is very organized. He won’t go for a compromise or something cheap. If he does something, he knows what it’s about and why.

I trust him completely. He has an impeccable taste and perseverance, and he also has cruelty.

He’s a very restrained person. Very educated, well-read and somewhat of a sceptic. But he’s a man of the world — or wants to be one. At any rate, he’s a man of Europe at least. He is interested in politics, he is interested in people’s fates, he draws something out of it. And he’s a wonderful father — it is surprising, but he gives a lot of his time to family. We have a very civil and almost friendly relationship. Well, you could say friendly.

Do you talk about yourself and Joseph?

No, but after his death… we and his friends became really close. Yuz Aleshkovsky, Bengt Jangfeldt, Roman Kaplan, a few others… Maria, his widow. When we meet, the talk inevitably moves to Joseph. Sometimes I remember what he’d say in my thoughts. I often catch myself thinking, “Joseph would say — what a goose!”. It was the most offensive thing he could say about another person.

I’m being serious. “Here, look, a mouse. Here’s a goose, enjoy!”. That’s all. At any rite, when I was present. He didn’t swear, ever. Only in poetry. Never. Never a bad word about a woman — never, no matter what relationship he might have had with that one or another. No dirty stuff in life. He could say — “When something is taking place between me and her,” — you understand what I’m saying.

Я был как все. То есть жил похожею
жизнью. С цветами входил в прихожую.
Пил. Валял дурака под кожею.
Брал, что давали. Душа не зарилась
не на свое.Обладал опорою
строил рычаг. И пространству впору я
звук извлекал, дуя в дудку полую.

Что бы такое сказать под занавес?!*****

I never heard swears pass his lips. Not even once.

Do swear yourself?

Yes, yes. I often do. Well, sometimes I can’t hold back. Guilty.

But did he really sing romances, accompanied by you in the Russian Samovar?

No. He mostly liked to sing the Farewell of Slavianka. He liked to sing old pre-revolution marches. He begged Rostropovich to talk with Yeltsin so that the hymn is changed to Farewell of Slavianka and new words are written for it. No, really - Farewell of Slavianka could have been a great anthem. [Hums without singing.]

Do you play any instruments?

Piano, a little. Nothing serious. I improvise a little. I couldn’t learn it. No. Sadly, no.

And the most important of the arts for you is…

Well, I am in theater now. No use running around. 

[Note by the editor: the translations marked with an asterisk were carried out on the fly as none were available at the time of writing. We have included a few of these amateurish scribblings to perhaps give a general idea about the contents of the poem.]

Only to live, only to live, supporting your coldness with my shoulder
Not for myself, not others, not for love, for no one and for no reason.
Only to live, only to live, not to care about anything, to forget.
I don't want to die. Kill myself, that I can't. 


The blind are wandering
at night.
At night it's much easier
To cross the square.


Let's build a monument
at the end of a long city street
or in the center of a wide city square,
a monument,
that will fit any ensemble,
because it will be
a little constructive and very realistic.
Let's build a monument,
which won't hurt anyone. 

The world is not the same as it was
before, when in it ruled fear, lampshade, foxtrot,
couch and combination, pungent salt.
Who thought that they’d be erased,
as if off the page with the efforts of the pencil rubber,
by time? No one, not a single soul.
But time, rustling,
Did exactly that.


I was like the others. That is, I lived a similar

life. I went into the hallway with flowers in hand.
I drank. I played the fool under the skin.
I took what they gave me. My soul didn’t choke
on something alien. I had support
built a lever. And for space I drew just the right
sound, blowing in a hollow pipe.

I wonder, what could I say before the curtain falls?

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