On a trip to St. Petersburg, Russia a number of years ago, I visited the house museum of Anna Akhmatova, perhaps the greatest Russian poet of the 20th century, and certainly among the most politically tormented. In one of the rooms there was a glass display case in which a well-worn, pocket-size address book caught my eye. It belonged to Joseph Brodsky, the Nobel Prize-winning poet who, in 1960 — when he was just 20 years old — was befriended and subsequently mentored by Akhmatova, who quickly recognized his gifts as a lyric poet. The little book was opened to a page on which, written in English, was the name “Baryshnikov,” followed by a phone number in New York.

“I didn’t know about that,” said actor and legendary dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov during a recent chat, as he was preparing to set out on a tour with his one-man show, “Brodsky/Baryshnikov,” a fantasia of poetry and movement inspired by Brodsky’s work, to be performed Feb. 2 – 4 at Chicago’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance. “But Joseph certainly didn’t need that number once we met, because until his death in 1996 [at the age of 55] we spoke to to each other by phone nearly every day.”

‘BRODSKY/BARYSHNIKOV’
When: Feb. 2-4
Where: Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph
Tickets: $45 – $150
Info: www.harristheaterchicago.org
Run time: 90 minutes, with no intermission

The two men met for the first time in New York, in 1974, when they were both guests at a party given by Mstislav Rostropovich, the fabled cellist, and his wife, Galina Vishnevskaya, the renowned opera singer.

“At one point Joseph saw me, came over to where I was sitting, and, without any further introduction – and a cigarette in his fingers, as it always was – said in his typically wry way, ‘You and I have a lot of things to discuss’.”

Indeed they did, even if they did not always agree about matters of art or politics. (As Baryshnikov explained, “He was conservative, and liked President Reagan and Margaret Thatcher; I am the opposite.”)

A scene from the dance/theater piece, “Brodsky/Baryshnikov,” a one-man show starring Mikhail Baryshnikov. | Janis Deinats

In a real sense their conversation is still in play in “Brodsky/Baryshnikov,” the one-man show that draws on more than 40 poems by Brodsky. The brainchild of Latvian-born director Alvis Hermanis, the 90-minute dance-theater piece — which debuted in New York in 2016, and arrives here following stops in Boston and Toronto — is performed in Russian with English supertitles (with translations by Jamey Gambrell). Baryshnikov alternately recites and reads the poet’s complex, heady texts, and moves to recordings of Brodsky himself. “The supertitles move around, so you won’t have to see a chiropractor for your neck when it’s over,” he quipped. “The beautiful set by Kristine Jurjane  suggests a 19th century glass orangerie.”

The Latvian-born Baryshnikov was a 26-year-old star of the Kirov (now Maryinsky) Ballet when he famously defected to Canada in 1974, subsequently reinventing himself many times over as a dancer, actor, and founder of the Manhattan-based arts center that bears his name. Brodsky, the Leningrad-born Russian-Jewish writer, was 33 when he arrived in the U.S. following a tumultuous early life that included a wartime childhood during the brutal Siege of Leningrad, two confinements in a mental institution, an arrest on charges of “social parasitism” that led to his being sentenced to five years of hard labor (of which he served 18 months on a farm in a remote northern village), and the confiscation of his poetry, which was denounced as “pornographic and anti-Soviet.” In June, 1972 he was forced into exile as Soviet officials put him on a plane to Vienna, Austria. He would never return to his homeland.

Joseph Brodsky (left) and Mikhail Baryshnikov in New York in 1985. | Courtesy of Leonid Lubianitsky

I left on my own,” said Baryshnikov. “Joseph [for whom the Russian language was everything] was thrown out.”

Baryshnikov first discovered Brodsky’s poetry at the age of 16 by way of a fellow student at the Vaganova School of ballet.

“He gave me a samizdat [clandestine] copy of one of his poems that was typed on thin paper, and I was totally captivated by Joseph’s white [blank] verse that was almost like prose,” Baryshnikov recalled. “This show is what my director described as ‘a spiritual séance — a call to the soul of the deceased.’ I was skeptical about it when he first proposed the idea, but he convinced me it was possible. And I thought about how, during the 20 or so years I knew Joseph, he would sometimes ask me to read his poetry to him, just to hear it. He had a distinctive, singing-like style of recitation, but he would say, “Read it the way you hear it’.”

And audiences will hear things like this, from “A Part of Speech,” in which Brodsky wrote, “…and when ‘the future’ is uttered, swarms of mice rush out of the Russian language and gnaw a piece of ripened memory which is twice as hole-ridden as real cheese.” Or you will be told, “We lived in a city the color of fossilized vodka,” or “Only ash knows what it means to burn.”

“The show ends with a previously untranslated poem Joseph wrote in 1957, at the age of 17, perhaps about a girlfriend he was leaving, and he says, ‘Farewell, forget, and don’t judge me too harshly.’ He then asks her to ‘burn his letters, like a bridge,’ adding that he kind of envies the people who will be beside her in her future journey. Imagine writing that at 17. I was a vegetable at that age, spending most of my time looking for my underwear.”