Mikhail Baryshnikov will open this year's Biennale di Venezia – virtually – in the world premiere of Not Once, an ‘art installation with film' by Jan Fabre, the Belgian multidisciplinary artist: playwright, director, choreographer, and designer.
I have always been open to any kind of artistic experience. Once I hung up my dance shoes, so to speak, I increased my theatre work and every year I present a new project. The theatre was the natural medium for me, and I cut my teeth with artists like Bob Wilson and Alvis Hermanis. I have experienced their visionary approach and I feel comfortable working in this way. I think that what I do well is to play the characters without identifying with them. On stage, the result is a mutual exchange between their story and me through an appropriate voice and body language.
For the film, Fabre has his covered Baryshnikov in white clay like a statue in a museum.
I don't feel like a living work of art – it's an honour but I am not egocentric. On the contrary, Not Once is a challenge, laying oneself bare in front of the public.
Fabre's method is destabilising. It's as though he reaches into your stomach, turns you inside out and then shows your entrails to the public. Then he does it with your brain. Even though we've known each other for decades it was challenging. I should have expected it from an artist who in his headquarters in Troubleyn exhibits a work that is also a motto: “Art can break your heart, kitsch can make you rich”.
The project came about after Fabre saw him on stage with Willem Dafoe in Bob Wilson's The Old Woman.
It wasn't easy. With Fabre you have to “surrender”. I had to metabolise the text I am playing for several years – it's his Monologue for a Man, written in 1996. I am interpreting it in the film, which mixes movement, contemporary art, and body art.
It's a non-love story. It stems from the platonic relationship between a photographer and her subject. It is a manipulative relationship as she constantly transforms him. She is always creating new identities for him, but she doesn't own him. It's [a metaphor] for the complexity and often impossibility of human relationships. A disturbing subject. There are mechanisms, sometimes indecipherable, that can bind two people for decades. It can happen on stage between two artists. It happens to everyone and so it represents everyday life. Telling it in a film, in a video installation that remains forever, means showing oneself without defences.
Death and Religion
[Wilson and Fabre] are from different worlds, but they have one thing in common – death. Both are scared of it, as am I. I'd be lying if I said I was indifferent. I am over 70, and it's if I can hear the sound of heavy footsteps behind me, trudging forward and indicating the end. Our end. It's a thought that we all have in common, though perhaps it worries men more than women as they live longer and with grace. We men are more hysterical, even whiners… a bit like me. When a new script or job offer comes in, my wife Lisa [Rinehart] looks at me and says, ‘Is this one about death too?'.
Is he a religious man?
I am not a practitioner or a believer in the traditional sense of the term. But I believe in what I call the divinity of man and in a Creator.
In 2019, at the New Riga Theatre (Baryshnikov was born in Riga in 1948) he played Pope Benedict XVI in a piece called The White Helicopter in 2019. The piece is dialogue with himself, with his secretary, and with a nun, after his resignation. Preparations are underway to film it.
Playing a Pope like Benedict XVI, who made such a strong gesture by resigning, made me ask myself many questions about today's society, and the complex relationship with God and faith. Benedict is an extraordinary figure: writer, scholar, and theologian. To understand the Pope, I investigated the man, Joseph Ratzinger, and his is a story of dramatic choices and deep human drama. It pushed me to dig into my soul.
Benedict as well as Francis serve the world. They both have a mission. Two exceptional figures. Francis… a Jesuit with a new and progressive face, and from Argentina, a complex country that I love very much. They work from different positions to transform the Catholic Church. Observing from the outside it appears to be a struggle between two different souls, conservative and more liberal.
Russia and America
It is not my wish to go back [to Russia], or a dream of mine. I was born under Joseph Stalin, escaped under Brezhnev, and eventually to the US, which immediately became my home. But then we found ourselves under Trump… then the pandemic. We've lived through a dramatic period, under a black cloak.
The election of Joe Biden and the presence of female figures like Kamala Harris in power are an extraordinary opportunity and a breath of fresh air; to bring our country back to normal and restore certain human values. Biden should be helped and supported, but half the country doesn't think so.
Baryshnikov says of his colleague Rudolf Nureyev,
Rudolf had such charisma that he fascinated people. It was a natural talent and he was outstanding on stage. The sixties for Rudolf and then the seventies for me were exceptional, but they were the ones where the public was more interested in the artists as public figures than in what they performed on stage.
But Baryshnikov from the outset was hungry to experience new styles on stage. Of Fred Astaire he says: “The best. No doubt about it.” Of dancing with Liza Minnelli on Broadway: “I wanted to feel that swing, that uniquely American culture of show business.”
The result of all these different experiences? Have they allowed me to discover that I am an artist: “single”, “solitary”? I love projects that start from scratch. I don't mind difficulties, frustrations, and unknowns… only the result. Like with Wilson and Hermanis, it is now happening with Jan Fabre.
La Biennale di Venezia presents the world premiere of Not Once.
July 23rd – 12pm – Sale d'Armi (Arsenale)
at the 15th International Festival of Contemporary Dance
directed by Wayne McGregor (23 July > 1 August)
An art installation with film
Conceived, written and directed by Jan Fabre
Performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov
Film directed by Jan Fabre and Phil Griffin
Mikhail Baryshnikov was talking to Gian Luca Bauzano for Sette/Corriere della Sera
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.