Friendship of Dance and Poetry

Friendship of Dance and Poetry

Two brilliant emigrants - Mikhail Baryshnikov and Joseph Brodsky - were bound by strong friendship and similar outlook at life.

Two people from the USSR

They met when Baryshnikov left the USSR - in 1974. By that time, Brodsky, forcibly expelled by the Soviet authorities, had been living in the United States for two years.

They both had a difficult fate and an outstanding talent. Brodsky, who had studied only eight years in school, who had been expelled from his home country,   taught brilliantly at the world leading universities and received the Nobel Prize. Baryshnikov, who, after the death of his mother, had to live with the families of classmates, became a principal dancer of the American Ballet Theater and a world celebrity.

Mouse and Cat Joseph

Here is how Baryshnikov recalled the beginning of their acquaintance:

“He [Brodsky] suggested going to first name terms, but on one condition: instead of “Misha”, he, in consonance, would be calling me “Mysh” (Mouse)...For himself, he chose a name that paired with my new nickname - "Cat Joseph" - and immediately added: "Meow!" So, that was what we called each other until the last day of our friendship.

This is described in the book by the Russian-British literary critic Valentina Polukhina By Those Who Remember Me. To Joseph Brodsky. In memoriam.

Baryshnikov was one of the first persons Brodsky read his poems to. Despite the fact that the poet didn’t like ballet, he always came to Mikhail's performances when the occasion arose.

Joseph Brodsky said about Baryshnikov:

“Misha knows more Russian poems by heart than I do. In life, he is lonely and relies on his intuition. He has an amazing ability to absorb everything new. I think Mozart was like him. They were born on the same day (January 27). I’ve never met anyone in my life in whom the bright and the tragic were also intertwined.”  

Russian Samovar

In the late 80s, the friends became co-owners of the New York restaurant Russian Samovar. Pretty soon, this establishment became a meeting place for friends and acquaintances, but at the same time it was one of the centers preserving Russian culture in the United States.

Mstislav Rostropovich, Bella Akhmadulina, Sergei Dovlatov, Bulat Okudzhava liked to come here. Joseph Brodsky and Yuz Aleshkovsky made edits to their menu.

Mikhail Baryshnikov was the restaurant's ambassador. The great dancer is extremely popular, and people are always eager to see him - they want to see him both on stage and in everyday life.

In one of the interviews, he said:

“Oh! It was Joseph who got me into this! I myself wouldn’t have dared to do that... It was an interesting establishment for quite a while - there you could read, have a drink, eat some aspic, sing the March of the Slavyanka - Brodsky liked that.

The restaurant is still open, introducing residents and guests of New York to Russian national cuisine and culture. 

"Be good, mouse"

Friendship of the two geniuses lasted over 20 years. They were parted only by the death of the poet who passed away on January 28, 1996.

There is an exhibition “Be good, mouse” dedicated to the friendship of Joseph and Mikhail at the Brodsky Memorial Museum in St. Petersburg now. These were the words that Brodsky said in his last conversation with Baryshnikov, congratulating him on his birthday, a few hours before his death.

A tribute to the memory of his friend is a one-man show Brodsky / Baryshnikov, in which Mikhail Nikolayevich reads Brodsky's poems.

Here is what Baryshnikov said about this work:

“I’ve never been a ballet person only. I put everything on one shelf, conveying emotions and feelings through movement and words, choosing projects that become bridges from dance to photography or theater. I feel more confident in performances where I have to move, although this show is rather a theater of philology than choreography.”

The premiere took place in 2015 in Riga. Later, the production was shown in the US, England, Israel and Italy.

In the show, Baryshnikov almost doesn’t dance, but any of his actions, any of his moves is already a dance. As in case of Brodsky, any word is already poetry.