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Mikhail Baryshnikov takes part in a dress rehearsal for Brodsky/Baryshnikov at the Winter Garden Theatre in Toronto, Ont. on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Time can seem visible in the body of an aging dancer. Every movement suggests physical ability that has tapered away, a past that ceases to be present. Mikhail Baryshnikov, once the great luminary of the ballet world, turns 70 this week. Putting him on stage invokes a self-referential ghost: All the tremendous corporeal power that isn't there, but haunts his presence.

The idea of ghosts and disappearances is at the heart of Brodsky/Baryshnikov, an understated one-man show that opened at Toronto's Winter Garden Theatre on Wednesday night and which has already toured internationally. The piece is a gloomy tribute to Baryshnikov's late friend, the Soviet poet and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky. The 90-minute work consists of Baryshnikov reciting excerpts of Brodsky's poems, which scroll in English surtitles (translated by Jamey Gambrell) above the set.

Sometimes, Baryshnikov is interrupted by an old recording of Brodsky's voice reciting the same poem. Other times, the retired dancer moves to the recording in an expressive way, charged by his balletic instincts. The poems aren't connected in any narrative sense and the action itself has no clear context or storied structure.

Read more: Ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov on the Russian poet who inspired his new show

Those central themes of time and loss, mirrored in Baryshnikov's aging body, can probably explain why Latvian director Alvis Hermanis has kept the theatrical concept so modest. I'm of two minds about this modesty's effect. On one hand, the simplicity feels rather bold. Baryshnikov is compelling enough (and maybe famous enough) to get on stage and maintain our interest doing virtually nothing – and there was a sense that this is what he set out to do.

The two men, both exiles from the Soviet Union, had a rapturously close friendship in which Baryshnikov developed a profound reverence for Brodsky's work. You can hear this reverence as he speaks; Baryshnikov is focused and unmannered, fixated on the words as though their repetition can unearth new meaning. There seems to be a deliberate resistance to dress anything up, to draw our attention away from the language itself and the verses' power.

One problem is that, for a non-Russian audience, the thrust of this power is obscured. Brodsky worked often in simile and metaphor and you get the sense that there's something a bit strained in translations such as "the brain is a melting iceberg/only fond of warm currents," and "a black searchlight fills my eye sockets." Moreover, even though the surtitles are projected near the action – the set is a fin-de-siecle glass gazebo designed by Kristine Jurjane and the text appears on its pediment – our attention is still divided between reading and watching, since the reading requires focus to unpack.

I wonder if there's a word in Russian that perfectly conflates bleakness and beauty. It's an idea I frequently reach for when I'm reading Dostoyevsky or watching the films of Andrey Zvyagintsev. I was very conscious of the feeling here, as Baryshnikov recited verses about death, regret and mortality. He moves in and out of the gazebo, which becomes suffused with different shades of light: amber, violet, steel. A fusebox outside the glass house sparks sporadically; occasionally, there are bursts of electronic noise. Baryshnikov tries to light a cigarette, drinks from a mickey of booze and, at one point, applies sunscreen over his pale arms and legs. In a particularly imagistic moment near the end, he paints a few of the gazebo's panes with whitewash, while Brodsky's voice relays a poem about drinking black coffee and voyaging into a fog.

The drama is this subtle – a subtlety that is certainly bleak and sometimes beautiful, but which can also get a little featureless. Boredom might fit well into themes of the inexorable passing of time, the body's decline, the inevitability of old age. But, at times, the material lost its theatrical grip. The stubborn focus on the language seemed to backfire and, paradoxically, sent my unfocused mind wandering away.

Brodsky/Baryshnikov presented by Show One Productions in association with Luminato, continues at the Winter Garden Theatre until Jan. 28.