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Mikhail Baryshnikov is in Toronto this week to perform his solo show Brodsky/Baryshnikov, a tribute to the Russian poet and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky.Janis Deinats

In 1974, Mikhail Baryshnikov pulled off a dramatic double performance in Toronto. After dancing with the Bolshoi Ballet at the O'Keefe Centre (now the Sony Centre), he shocked the dance world (and the Soviet government) by announcing his sudden defection from the USSR. Baryshnikov returned to Toronto this week to perform his solo show Brodsky/Baryshnikov, a tribute to the Russian poet and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky. Exiles from the Soviet Union, the two men developed a friendship that would last until the end of Brodsky's life. The Globe and Mail spoke to Baryshnikov via phone from his office in New York.

How did you first meet Joseph Brodsky?

Well, I knew of him since I was 15 or 16 years old. That was a big scandal, when he had his court case and he was sent to exile – up north in prison, practically. I worshipped his poetry and got totally captivated by his work. I met him a couple of weeks after I arrived in New York City, in the house of mutual friends. At a party. And we sort of started to talk. We had a lot of things in common, we'd lived in the same city [Leningrad] and had many mutual friends. We got really very friendly and started to get really close. He was like a big brother to me.

I read that he was a big influence on your reading.

He always brought books. Poetry. Mark Strand or Czeslaw Milosz or W.H. Auden. He said, "Read! Read!" And I said, "But I don't speak English yet!" He said, "You will, you'll see." And I did. I learned sort of – well, the way I speak now – sort of pidgin English. These conversations with people who were hanging out with him in his apartment at Morton Street … there was a lot of literati and his students and, of course, the writers: Susan Sontag and Stephen Spender and Czeslaw Milosz. Derek Walcott, of course – he was his really close friend. And I was a fly on the walls, sometimes for hours just listening. But we got really close. His friendship lasted for 25 years. And very intense. Every day, or every second day, we [would] call each other, go to dinner, go for walks. He had such an incredible range that we talked about many things – if you wanted to speak about astronomy, he could speak knowingly about astronomy. About food? Oh my god, yes. Women, of course. A bit about politics.

You were both exiles in New York. Was that part of the political conversation?

He was a Republican. He was a conservative. And I was totally opposite and still am. We had disputed discussions. He didn't generally trust people in politics. He always said to me: "Remember where you came from." And, "don't trust people in general." But he'd admire people like Margaret Thatcher or Bush Sr. or Ronald Reagan. We used to go to the White House for some dinners and the rest. He was really very much involved in talking to people. [laughs] He died as a conservative and I still have to be with my convictions.

You said you worshipped his poetry – what about it?

His mastery at delivering a story. And his range of subjects: civility, grace, musical cadenza – the phonetics of it. It's remarkable. From the love poems to the philosophy about religion, to the Christmas poems. It's difficult to even talk about, because he had such extraordinary range. His relationship with people like Anna Akhmatova, let's say. He lived a relatively short life – he died at 55 years old, that's really very young for a man. But remarkable life, remarkable man.

Isaiah Berlin said that Brodsky doesn't translate well – that you have to read him in Russian. Do you agree?

Well it's like any poetry. The essence in our play – of course, I'm reciting in our mother tongue – but there's an English translation done by Jamey Gambrell, which is really extraordinary. That's the direction of Alvis Hermanis. A Latvian director, very gifted man. He grew up on Joseph's poetry, too. The translation, which floats over the set, is not a poetic translation, but gives you the essence of the poem in very simple terms. Of course, those poems are rhymed and the translation is not, otherwise it would be a dichotomy of two poems. Like trains running against each other on the same platform.

Did the director, Alvis Hermanis, approach you with a vision for the show already in place?

No, no, no. We met first about something else, about another project, which wasn't right in the end. But I knew his work in theatre. Opera, too. He knew that I was close with Joseph and he was very curious about Joseph as a person – what kind of guy was he? We talked quite a bit. Alvis was really keen to know what he was like in private. He called me a few months later and said, "If you're interested, I want to put this in the form of theatre. A journey through Joseph's poems plus, because you're friends, I like the idea that the audience would come and sit through a spiritual seance. You call to your late friend for conversation."

Is Toronto a special place for you because of your defection?

Oh yes, I have some very good friends. Every time I come back, I'm very grateful to a lot of people who helped me in difficult times. I'm looking forward to performing in Toronto.

Did Brodsky's poetry have an impact on your own dancing or choreography? Did it affect you artistically?

No, I don't think anything artistically, but he was a perfectionist. And I'm a bit anal about those things myself. About just doing right. The work and the ethics of work and dedication – I was so amazed, even when he didn't feel good at all, when he was really sick, he was still working. He knew that everyday his life might end. He inspired me to keep perfecting your craft no matter how you feel.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Brodsky/Baryshnikov, presented by Show One Productions and Luminato, plays at Toronto's Winter Garden Theatre to Jan. 28.

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