Baryshnikov Portrays a Tortured Nijinsky in Letter to a Man
Wilson/Baryshnikov, Letter to a Man: Mikhail Baryshnikov (Nijinsky), Royce Hall, UCLA, Los Angeles, 18.11.2016. (JRo)
Direction, set design, lighting concept – Robert Wilson with Mikhail Baryshnikov
Text, based on the diary of Vaslav Nijinsky – Christian Dumais-Lvowski
Dramaturgy – Darryl Pinckney
Music – Hal Willner
Costumes – Jacques Reynaud
Collaboration on movements and spoken text – Lucinda Childs
Lighting design – A.J. Weissbard
Associate set design – Annick Lavallée-Benny
Associate director — Nicola Panzer
Sound design – Nick Sagar/Ella Wahlström
Video design – Tomek Jeziorski
I approached Robert Wilson and Mikhail Baryshnikov’s latest collaboration, Letter to a Man, with great expectations. A music- and movement-based theatre piece exploring the diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky, the one-man show delves into the mad mind of that tortured genius of early twentieth-century dance who gave us such ballets as The Afternoon of a Faun, Jeux, and The Rite of Spring.
The production had the ingredients of a sure-fire success: a visionary director and one of the world’s greatest dancers portraying a pivotal ballet figure. Instead it paired mind-numbing repetition with perplexing music assembled into a Wilsonian vaudeville show. The recorded voices of Wilson, Baryshnikov, and Lucinda Childs (who collaborated on some of the dance movements) narrated snippets of Nijinsky’s diary in English and Russian, while Baryshnikov, in white tie and tails, sauntered, skipped, and fluttered with his usual grace and charm.
If you are a longtime admirer of this extraordinary dancer and charismatic performer, as I am, you could probably watch him drag chalk across a blackboard and enjoy the experience. But here Baryshnikov was wasted on the material. The surreal elements and stark visual splendor of Robert Wilson’s world were in place, but they did little to illuminate the text or the workings of Nijinsky’s disturbed mind. As the character grapples with God, Christ, lust, fame, nature, war, and his relationship to his mother-in-law and to Diaghilev, there is little depth beyond a few choice words endlessly repeated, as in the opening segment: ‘I am not Christ, I am Nijinsky’. Darryl Pinckney was responsible for culling the dialogue for the production, and I only wish he had managed less repetition and more complexity.
After marrying the Hungarian Romola de Pulszky, Nijinsky was dismissed from the famed Ballet Russes by a furious Diaghilev, his lover. With his career coming to an abrupt halt and unable to work, he slowly descended into madness. Because there is very little text in the dance-drama to bring one into the complicated mind-set of this troubled soul, meaning must be found elsewhere. The music gives no clues – it’s an odd pastiche of American songs from Bessie Smith to Bob Dylan to Tom Waits, and a 1966 Billboard hit, ‘They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!’ (A very literal choice, to be sure.) Why is Nijinsky’s mind fleshed out with American music? Where is Russian music? Where is French song (Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes performed often in Paris)? There may be justifications for imbuing the production with a contemporary, relatable feel – universality of experience and all that – but one is ultimately left in the dark. What should be tragic and poetic turns cute and satirical.
Baryshnikov’s movements are all that remain to convey Nijinsky’s soul – arms arcing through space holding tree branches, legs kicking out in a doll-like straight leg dance, or skittering across the stage with robotic spins. But as valiantly and gracefully as he performed, Baryshnikov was sabotaged by a number of problems. Overly bright music hall lights perched on the floor at the front of the stage cast a harsh glare: his feet and lower legs all but disappeared and his upper body was blurred. The venue, Royce Hall, is too vast to allow proper viewing of what should be an intimate cabaret show. For anyone seated in the balcony, it was nearly impossible to glean any subtlety from the choreography. And, unfortunately, the choreography wasn’t as developed as it should have been.
There were effective moments – a scene with Nijinsky in a monk-like cell grappling with his evil inclinations, or a video projection of snow and ice as Nijinsky rails against war. But I wanted more than a white-faced vaudevillian teasing his audience. I wanted to commune with this sad Russian soul, an exile from his profession and his country, an artist who made an enduring contribution to the world at the birth of the modern age.