The set for Mikhail Baryshnikov’s tribute to Joseph Brodsky consists of a structure resembling a ruined old greenhouse—something you might picture surviving in a neglected corner of the Ranyevskaya estate years after the sale of the cherry orchard. Baryshnikov’s route to the stage takes him through a door at the back of the structure, across its near-empty interior, and finally out a downstage set of doors. Almost comically circuitous, it’s not what you’d call a star entrance. And it’s not followed by anything you’d call a star turn. The great dancer spends the next few moments unpacking items from a valise: books, a pint-size whisky bottle. Then he starts reciting Brodsky’s poetry, in Russian.
He’ll spend the next 90 minutes either reciting poems or listening to voice-over recitations of them. Yes, he’ll dance, but only in fairly brief, gestural passages. The evening belongs to Brodsky, the Soviet exile who became a United States poet laureate and recipient of a Nobel prize for literature. At one point, Baryshnikov, standing inside the greenhouse behind its glass wall, starts whitewashing the panes that separate him from the audience, making himself disappear—a literal act of self-effacement.
The effacement isn’t just a matter of Baryshnikov’s humility before Brodsky’s prodigious art, though. It’s also a reckoning. Much of what we hear (and see in Alvis Hermanis’s staging, thanks to English-language supertitles running up the cornice of the greenhouse) are meditations on mortality. A former morgue worker, Brodsky was pitiless on the subject. Baryshnikov is similarly unsentimental, stripping off his jacket, vest, and shoes in the course of the show so that we can see what’s become of his 70-year-old body. Like J. Alfred Prufrock, he wears the bottoms of his trousers rolled. He’s still gorgeous, of course, but no longer principal-dancer-with-the American-Ballet-Theatre gorgeous. Some years back, Baryshnikov performed with an 80-year-old Merce Cunningham, in a concert that acknowledged death even as it repudiated it. Now that Cunningham is gone, Baryshnikov has made Brodsky his partner in a sort of reprise. The results are considerably darker yet equally powerful.
Brodsky/Baryshnikov is a difficult show for a non-Russian speaker, continually forcing choices between the poet’s vision and the dancer’s presence. There’s no solution, just the consolation of knowing you can go find one of Brodsky’s books when you get home.
Brodsky/Baryshnikov Sun 2/4, 2 PM, Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, 312-334-7777, harristheaterchicago.org, $45.