MIKHAIL
BARYSHNIKOV.

For them I am old fashioned

The only project that I would not want to carry out would be my own funeral.

Words by Estere Kajema

Photography by Estere Kajema and Jānis Deinats

The following interview was originally published in Benji Knewman Vol. 4.

 

My plane touches down at the Ben Gurion airport shortly after noon. Tel Aviv meets me with a warm rain shower. I pass the towers of Azrieli, Dizengoff Street, the sea. Today, I will receive the long-awaited tickets to the performance ‘Brodsky/Baryshnikov’ and two days later I will meet Mikhail Baryshnikov. As I prepared for this conversation, I thought about the meaning of the word “home”. Just like Baryshnikov and Brodsky, I spent a part of my life far away from the place where I grew up, but it is here, in Tel Aviv, that I feel peaceful, comfortable and happy.

I look through my notes on Baryshnikov. Before meeting new people, I often try to imagine our potential conversations, despite the usual caution: “Don’t expect too much, so that you don’t have to be disappointed.”

Wednesday evening, I saw Baryshnikov on stage for the first time. It was the performance of ‘Brodsky/Baryshnikov’ about which I tried not to listen or read anything beforehand, except for a review by a close friend. In my opinion, it is important to know the basis and history, but the emotional and visual experience should take place with an empty mind – tabula rasa. Wednesday evening, I decided to follow good advice and not expect anything.

I came to the performance almost one hour before it started. The Suzanne Dellal theatre is located right next to the old station HaTachana, in the southern part of the Neve Tzedek district. It’s warm on the street, and the air is full of the southern evening. People are slowly gathering around the theatre. I am surrounded by the gentle sounds of beautiful spoken Russian.

At the theatre, an Israeli man is sitting to my left. A young Russian girl is to my right. I am clutching a small tome of Brodsky’s poetry and trying to guess what Baryshnikov might read on stage. Exactly ninety minutes later, I leave the theatre in tears.

I am supposed to meet Baryshnikov at 10:00 a.m. on Thursday. I leave home at nine, slowly walk down my favourite streets and come out to my beloved sea. It is very important to me that this meeting is taking place right here, in Tel Aviv. Baryshnikov and I are on neutral ground, yet in my city. I take the elevator to the upper floor of the hotel. He is already waiting. He is wearing a suit and a white shirt and he looks slightly morose and tired.

I would like to begin by putting forward my own interpretation of the stage set. As an art historian, I attach much importance to the visual aspects of a performance. Yesterday, seeing the set live and not on a screen, with my own eyes, I was really shook up – because of my own experiences. I remembered the houses I went to of people who no longer live there.

Riga seaside…

Exactly. As a child, I often went to our dacha in Saulkrasti. Just before we sold it, I went for the last time to say good-bye to the house.

Glassed in verandas…

And when they are left alone, without those who are supposed to live there, one simply loses heart. This seemed to happen as you walked into the veranda created by Kristīne Jurjāne.

This is your interpretation, I don’t have to support it or deny it – this was thought of by the artist and the stage director. I was just the performer, and that is something different.

‘Brodsky/Baryshnikov’ is a performance and not a performance. Kristīne Jurjāne and Alvis Hermanis thought of this stage set. They made use of the conservatories of Vienna. It’s Belle Epoque, and the stage set indeed evokes much.

Susan Sontag wrote that a work of art should not be interpreted, because we must think of the author and his intentions before any interpretations of our own. Roland Barthes, on the other hand, says that the task of the audience is to forget about the author completely and live with one’s own emotions and understanding.

This is commentary to the decisions of the stage director, whereas the actor ought to keep his mouth shut.

But an actor has his voice. I have seen many recordings in which you speak English but I was amazed hearing how different you sound when you speak Russian and read poetry. Your voice is embracing, caressing – like when in your childhood you ask an adult to read to you a bedtime story.

There is the phrase “mother tongue” – it is something indescribable; the mother tongue always differs from a learnt language. It is pure physiology.

A dancer or a person who is on the stage without saying anything automatically remains in one’s memory as soundless. A grey cardinal who creates but is always at a distance from his creation.

So it happened.

But poetry – you are reading Brodsky’s poetry. What do you think – is it better to read it aloud, in a whisper or just silently?

If Joseph Brodsky were to answer your question, he would roar: “The poet should read!” It is the inner voice. For any poet, for others to read his poems out loud is a kind of mutiny. They should be read sitting on a couch or lying in bed, silently.

In my head, the poems of Brodsky are stored with his intonation. 

Canorously.

And it is very difficult to escape from that. When I re-read his poems, my inner voice unwittingly imitates his intonation.

Yes, because of that we have that little episode where I am reading after him. It happened completely by accident: Alvis [Alvis Hermanis, the director of ‘Brodsky/Baryshnikov’ – ed.] chose the poems and I simply read them after Joseph, and Alvis immediately thought of using it.

Did you ever see Joseph write? What kind of a process was that?

He typed, cut it up with scissors, attached them to the door frame and then pasted on the next lines, one after the other. If it was a long poem, he took everything down and just kept pasting further.

Did he read aloud to friends?

Yes, only new stuff. He could call and read something new, but never just like that, something old. I was lucky to be the first listener many times.

Did he quote other poets?  Or writers?

Pasternak most often. Tsvetayeva.

But Akhmatova? Did Joseph talk about him meeting Akhmatova?

Naturally, as part of the conversation. He could say, “but АА” – Anna Andreyevna. But one had to twist his arm for him to talk about something personal. Of course he talked about her – usually not when he was asked but when he had to make some sort of comparison. But he never talked about it publicly – he considered it in poor taste.

In your opinion, is there a difference between a poet reading his poetry, an actor playing on stage, and an artist doing a performance?

First of all, I do not like this term “performance” [in Russian – ed.] One should speak either English or Russian. These days, an installation – although this too is a borrowed word – is called a performance.

To me, it’s a kind of contaminated Russian.

But how should we then call this movement in art?

Any which way, but something native should be found. I think that Russian is a language rich enough. It is difficult to call ‘Brodsky/Baryshnikov’ by some one name, but this is what a theatrical exploration is all about – this is exactly what Alvis was after. It is by no means a performance in the usual sense.

It is not canonical.

Alvis calls it a theatrical séance – the séance is taking place, but the audience is only present.

We read for hours, both face to face and on Skype, recording and listening. The two of us. It was reading for ourselves.

Alvis insisted that the performance should take place sitting. If the actor sits, he does not have the right to wave around his hands or do something theatrical. As if your hands were in handcuffs and you needed to pick up a glass. For that same reason, the voice too has to be more restrained. You simply cannot fill your chest cavity with so much oxygen. Alvis said that he and his actors never read poetry standing – it lessens the possibility of melodeclamation.

It is very interesting because it does not fit the canon and traditional perception of poetry.

I take it as a compliment, thank you!

Previously you have worked with Bob Wilson. To what extent does ‘Brodsky/Baryshnikov’ differ from the two Bob Wilson productions in which you acted?

It was different with Bob. In the second production, ‘The Old Woman’, I was a co-author – the stage direction was by Bob Wilson with Mikhail Baryshnikov. He gave me a lot of freedom but also a lot of responsibility. It was produced by completely different rules: very tempestuous, nervous, with all kinds of drops and raises and little troubles or victories.

Alvis is very organized, even pedantic, I would say. He gives you homework and participates in doing it – he is such a strict teacher. Alvis is very purposeful – he knows the end result. Wilson goes absolutely into the unknown, without any idea how it will all end up – otherwise it’s not interesting for him. He always puts in the last touches practically on the last day before the premiere, and sometimes even on that very day. Alvis, on the other hand, makes sure about everything several weeks in advance – he knows what he is going for.

In ‘The Old Woman’ you performed together with Willem Dafoe – he too is a significant figure in cinema and in theatre. Wilson, Dafoe and you are three important figures in contemporary theatre.  Often and not always purposefully, a professional gains what is called celebrity status. It basically depends on professionalism and unique characteristics. But professionalism at some point turns into egocentrism, fanaticism, elevation.

It is difficult for me to imagine myself as the public, which suddenly chooses some person and puts a halo around him. I remember Willem from the time when no one knew about him, as part of the Wooster Garage, in the mid-1970s. I saw him in various appearances – and even when he was just a boy. I have never thought about when the public chooses its movie actor or theatre actor or its circus clown. It’s better not to think about it at all.

Wilson directed the production of ‘When Marina Abramovich Dies’ not long befоre ‘The Old Woman’. In my opinion, ‘When Marina Abramovich Dies’ ideologically is very similar to ‘Brodsky/Baryshnikov’ – both productions are about death and memory. About what must persist afterwards.

I do not agree. Alvis did not have a score, he had actual literature. ‘When Marina Abramovich Dies’ is the life story of Marina Abramovich, whereas ‘Brodsky/Baryshnikov’ is real high-class literature. It’s poetry.

In art theory there are two ways to understand spectacle – the first was used by Guy Debord in his book ‘The Society of Spectacle’, in which the distance and break between the stage and the audience are described. The other – “relational art”, described by Nicolas Bourriaud in his ‘Relational Aesthetics’, suggests that a work of art cannot exist without an audience and of course vice versa.

I rather prefer the old Russian concepts of “art of presentation” and “art of experience”. In my opinion, Wilson’s stage works rather fall into the category of the “art of presentation”, but what the audience gets out of it is its own business.  An idea goes through a sieve of interpretations – from the dramatist to the director, from the director to the actor and then to the audience. There is also a third factor, poet and poetry. When I pronounce a text without an audience, I experience exactly the same emotional impulse as during the performance.

How does this apply to ballet?

I have already forgotten what that is.

When I watch a ballet performance, I enjoy looking into the faces of the performers, trying to follow the thoughts of the actor.

…I hope I don’t fall!

Really? Is it that terrifying?

It is! It is more terrifying probably to pronounce words. I fear words more than movement. Movement is easy.

Would you say that movement is related to pop culture? With Warhol, Haring, Madonna, voguing?

I was never part of that. To talk about movement means to knead dough that will never rise – depending on how it’s done. Directors and choreographers always have it somewhere inside of them – they are excited by this, usually unconsciously.

But one simply has to be born in this pop culture – I never participated in it at all. It never represented a serious pull for me, I simply did what seemed interesting to me.

It was the beginning of the 1980s when I was a ballet dancer, so I never was a part of their circle and to them was probably an old-fashioned character instead of a participant in their pranks.

You talked about digital spaces. At the moment, practically any performance – ballet, opera, theatre and even exhibitions can be seen on the screen. 

It is business, a possibility for a theatre to make money. Probably this is where it’s all going – the current support system is reinforcing it – and in the near future, people may not even be going to the theatre.

Do you feel that it is killing the aesthetics of live theatre?

Of course! I am old-fashioned in the sense that I do not like the screen. Any presentation through a screen is profanation of art. Live theatre, ballet and opera were not made for broadcasting. A simple comparison: one can go to a concert or simply put on a record at home.

There are special programs made for television – documentaries, for instance. I watch big opera performances on the screen but for me it is the only chance to see something that I have missed. I watch these recordings from a professional point of view.

If we cannot feel and perceive the aesthetics of a performance through the screen, can we feel movement through a photograph if it was done on film but shown on the digital screen?

My attitude toward this is the same. As a reference – yes, we can run through something like that. But to see on the wall how the photograph was made, how it was printed, how it was lighted, why it’s hanging right there, what’s the meaning of it all – that’s what’s of interest to me.

I am thinking of the photograph that you took in Florida of Brodsky and Maria Sozzani, his wife, walking.

Yes, it happened accidentally – on the White Oaks plantation in Florida. He was writing ‘Democracy’ then [a play by Brodsky from the 1980s – ed.], and he and Maria came for a few weeks. I was there working and took quite a few pictures of them. There was a tiger behind bars and, on the other side, there was a panther. So he was looking in one direction and Maria in the other.

If we think about it, photography is a very neutral object, which can only relate a little. You never think in what language people speak in a particular picture. How they pronounce the letter “r”.  A photograph is a soundless artefact, a part of an archive. 

I took pictures on a 35-mm camera, like everyone else. For several years, I did it rather seriously. Later I moved on to a digital camera, and I took pictures of movement. The picture of Joseph with Maria happened by accident and very nicely and that’s how it has remained in the memories of many of us – for Maria and her daughter, and for all of us.  We took many pictures of each other – he was a much better photographer than I. Now I rarely take pictures, particularly with the 35-mm camera, the one with the film. When I have time, I take pictures of movement.

Can, for instance, language communicate movement? Can ballet communicate language?  Every piece of music, if only by association, has its own dialect. 

Language as sound?

Yes, like sound – emotion, accent.

If you knew the person it is one thing. Then you know his plasticity, his mannerisms. I never thought about this question.

You have said that contemporary dance is more democratic than the academic dance.

Yes, it is more transparent and informal. In the classical canon the inner perceptions are veiled whereas in contemporary dance you pay less attention to form, because it is easier to acquire than for a dancer constrained in a tutu or tights. You have to penetrate through layers of makeup, costume, the interpretations set forth by the choreographer. You have to dig quite deep to communicate emotion that could excite some sort of inner wave in the audience. The post-romantic dance is more straightforward, more naked.

In contemporary art, it is very different. The more traditional, canonical art is free. 

In traditional art, there are more cadences for interpretation. The contemporary is something very close to the ground, very naked. Speaking of democracy, in my opinion, this is what it is – this feeling of nakedness, so in theatre it always works on you if you believe him or her.

But in contemporary art it is just the opposite – nakedness and transparency are completely lacking. Tightness, avidity, but never nakedness.

Depends on how you look at it. Do you think that a person who has thought of an installation or a performance, he is completely cold to it all and it’s difficult to take it all apart, right?

Yes, of course.

Then, to me, it’s bad. What for? If the person has no answer, then we should ask the curator why they chose this particular work.

But there is that old saying that one does not argue about art, one criticises art. Arguing is pointless. You get a bad review, you brush it off and do something else. Or you continue doing the same thing.

Are there pieces of contemporary art in your collection? 

Right now, my entire collection belongs to my centre. I have many works by artists whom I knew or still know – they give me little things as presents. I have already stopped acquiring, it’s too late and there is no place on the walls. I have no more desire to acquire.

Was there any time when you fanatically kept purchasing works of a particular artist?

No, I never purchased anything fanatically. I was putting together a collection in the 1970s and 1980s, when it all cost pennies, particularly pictures of costumes and set designs. It was all ridiculously accessible. I never bought anything at an auction, my collection consisted of gifts or works that I bought directly from galleries. I bought directly from artists whom I knew.

In my opinion, such acquisitions are the most interesting and precious ones. 

I never tried to figure out how it all was done, when, whatever. I am not an academic – I simply liked the image, the colour, how it was put together – and that’s all, I did not need anything else.

I can’t understand this. It is difficult for me to take in a work of art independent of the author and story behind it. 

I knew more or less that Benoit was doing new sketches for Petrushka in the 1950s in Italy. That’s it. I did not have time to dig for information.

And now you have united your collection with the Baryshnikov Arts Centre?

Yes, now everything belongs to the centre – a hundred plus works. It is not the complete collection – there are many more works left. Everything has to be sorted and turned over – either to a museum or to some private collections. I have no interest in this.

So you don’t want a museum of your own?

No, no – we have no premises and no desire for it. The collection has been exhibited here and there and perhaps some of it will be sold. We need money instead of works of art. We need money to invest in what others are doing, that is, in new works of art. In theatre or music, choreography, film or sculpture.  But the rest are just remnants of the past.

Will it not be sad for you to part with your collection?

No, not at all – there is not enough time left for feeling sad.

Many collectors get very attached to the things they have accumulated.

I don’t. I never have. People are much more interesting than objects.

But to get attached to people is even more painful, much more painful.

Then one has to keep one’s distance.

We mentioned your centre. In March [the conversation took place in January ed.], you will show ‘Brodsky/Baryshnikov’ in New York. How important is this performance for the centre?

It is no more and no less important than here, for example. The performance will not take place at Joseph’s home on Morton Street, but in a building that he never visited. The city of course will provoke some sort of emotions for some or even for me. But I doubt that it will be anything special. The performance is already done.

Nevertheless, I think that many people who will come to see it in New York will be emotionally attached to Brodsky.

There were his friends in Riga [the performance premiered in Riga, at Jaunais Rīgas Teātris – ed.], and there will be his friends in New York. His main friends are his readers. There are very few friends remaining who knew him well. His friends were often older than he, so they would be over 80 now. There are his students, some of whom participate in this performance – one of his best students, Jamey Gambrell, translated it into English.

Of course New York means drawing closer to particular geographical points of reference – we met in New York, we walked in New York for hours, months, years. Here and there, but mostly downtown. But I cannot think about that, because then that inner chord would be broken and an unnecessary excitement would ruin the performance.

In what way are Riga and Tel Aviv important for the performance?

There are many Russian speakers. We are getting back to one of your first questions – the mother tongue. It seems that the performance is making an impression even on people who do not speak Russian – they suddenly can make sense of what this or that poem is about.

Was it emotionally costly for you to come to Riga and have the premiere there? [1]

I did not think about it – there was the theatre and the director there. It was work, nothing else. It was not my first time in Riga and it was not the first time I did something there.

And there was no emotional overload?

Hmm. No.

Because you do not call Riga your home?

No, I don’t, absolutely not. But of course there would be no performance without emotion.

When you go to Riga, are there any routes that you always take?

Yes, but that’s personal. Of course there are.

I understand it very well. Sometimes in my dreams I look up and see buildings of Dzirnavu Street, which I remember from my childhood. Home is an interesting concept, almost mythical. Is home for you a physical space where your children and family live? Or is it something that you carry with you – inside?

Not really.

Of course there are places in Riga that remind me of home. It is moving, but it is a long conversation.

But if we were to abstract ourselves from some geographical place?

Then home is the place to return to.

Is there anything that you still find surprising in people?

Joseph would have answered – “man is more frightful than his skeleton”.

We are used to living among people and are used to their natural reactions.  At some point, you begin to forget that every person possesses his or her own conceptual outlook. Every person thinks differently and no one can understand the mind of another.

Of course everyone thinks that everyone else must line up along his ruler. It is absurd because you can never get into another’s head. It is difficult to understand and that’s why people have come up with philosophy – that’s a little easier. One has to read, juxtapose, remember, try out, experience. And then one tries out a different approach – can I rise or lower myself to the thinking of another person? And to what extent should I do that?

The conceptual schemes are straight out of Plato. By the way, his idea of the cave makes me think about the performance. Plato says that people in the cave could see only shadows flickering on the walls whereas there was a whole world over their heads. The people in the cave knew only the shadows that replaced the world for them. Perhaps the performance was an analogy to that cave.

I am sure that Joseph Brodsky would give a brilliant answer to your question, but I will abstain.

It is possible to consider this question also from the vantage point of postmodernist philosophy. For instance, Jean Baudrillard wrote about simulations and hyper-realities. One could look at the performance as a simulation.

This is why Joseph did not like theatre. For him, text was never subject to a theatrical interpretation, never. You are supposed to read, see and understand, and that is the truth. There is no need for any beautification or personification.

But it is practically impossible.

Exactly! And that’s why he did not like performances. He did not think that it was possible and used to say that there was and should be no truth in theatre. For him it was just a waste of time.

The theme of memory is very important in the theory and history of art, and it is often developed in dance and music. For instance, to what extent during a movement, is a dancer showing the work of his memory? Or, say, a musician playing the piano?

Yes, the mechanics. Of course, it depends on the mood in which you walk up to the piano. Memory is an interesting subject.

In the present performance, when you read Brodsky’s poems, is your memory at work?

Yes, it is the memory of his voice. Only very little time has passed since the day of his death – only twenty years. Although many things are already being wiped off. Memory lives through his poetry – during these twenty years, I have read much more than during the twenty years of our acquaintance. The lack of the original makes one reread. It involves returning to the living Brodsky – his voice and his intonation. It is an attempt of re-remembering, the desire to do so. It is the desire to delve once more into what he wrote. Here we are not even talking about memory – memory is probably for those who are fifteen and sixteen who are just now beginning to read Brodsky.

Marianne Hirsch calls it “postmemory”. She writes about traumatic events and about the fact that for children – those who have experienced these events, – a postmemory remains a kind of a prosthesis. It is a memory that does not actually exist. In my opinion, one can feel it even more keenly in poetry and literature in general.

Of course – it is discovering something new, something that is not based on the truth they have lived through, it is something abstracted. It is a good observation.

Alvis decided to do this performance when he turned fifty. He read Brodsky when he was still living in the US and says that even then he got goose-bumps from his poetry. Many years have passed, but even now he has the memory of this first reaction.

Memory, space and time.

What Joseph wrote about.

Exactly! The last question comes from Hans-Ulrich Obrist. If you could carry out any project, any idea – what would it be?

The only project that I would not want to carry out would be my own funeral. The rest is all possible!

[1] Baryshnikov was born in Riga, went to elementary school in Riga and then studied at the Choreography School there. In 1964, at the age of 16, he went to study in Leningrad where he lived until 1974. While on tour to Canada, he refused to return to the USSR.

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