The white-faced hero, (it’s literally a death mask), sits on a metal chair enveloped by a straight jacket. He seems equally confined by a column of light. We hear what sounds like a mechanical drill, the Russian (there are supertitles) and English voices of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Robert Wilson, Lucinda Childs, ostensibly playing the dancer’s wife, a hurdy-gurdy, a child’s singing, screeches, screams…the jacket whips off. He wears a tail suit.
Already a prodigy in St. Petersberg, Russia, dancer Vaslav Nijinsky made a considerable, international reputation starring with The Ballets Russes from 1909-1913. Among his more famous choreography was L’apres-midi d’un faun (music by Claude Debussy) which caused a scandal and Le Sacre de Printemps (music by Igor Stravinsky) which evoked audiences to riot against modernity and sexuality. During that time, he and the company’s controlling impresario, Sergei Diaghilev, were lovers.
When Nijinsky married dancer Romola de Pulszky, Diaghilev fired him. The breech was traumatic. Work became intermittent and then rare. Diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed to an asylum in 1919, he spent 30 years in and out of institutions.
Text, by Christian Dumais-Lvowski, derives from the dancer’s unexpurgated diaries. (A first published edition had been edited by his wife.) Baryshnikov was quoted as saying Letter to a Man is less specifically about its inspiration and more “ …about a troubled man and his relationship with his art, with God, with family, with moral issues.” Still, hostility towards his mother-in-law, pacifism, tortured feelings about sex, a disproportionately inflated ego, and a relationship with his deity seem to reflect Nijinsky. There are mentions of his wife and one of Diaghilev, but little about art.
Robert Wilson’s signature, emotionless, measured approach is in effect. Within its framework, however, Baryshnikov not only delivers infinitely slow motion choreography but also robotic/staccato gestures, seemingly loose, vaudevillian dance turns, and a bit of graceful Fred Astaire. (Don’t look for actual ballet.) At one point his coat might just as well be a feather boa.
“I had the impression that somebody had killed a man…”, “I went for a walk and it seemed to me there was blood on the snow…”, “I am standing in front of a precipice that is an abyss…”,…I am not Christ, I am Nijinsky,” he repeats reminding himself like a mantra, “…I am not a god, I am a beast, a predator…A creature is a thing, not a god…” “My lust has disappeared since I ceased to eat meat…”, “I want to describe my adventures with tots. I resorted to all kinds of ruses to get tots (little girls)…”, “I am a simple man who has suffered a lot…”, “You wish me harm!”
Deliberately restrained motion is both aided and made more difficult by a cloth covered stage floor as specified by Wilson, Baryshnikov tells me. Balance assumes new importance,choreography requires a different approach. Shoe rubber and leather must pass across the surface smoothly to enable fluency.
As the protagonist, the iconic dancer/choreographer/actor is an immeasurably graceful and explicit presence in an atmosphere of violent confusion. Counterpoint creates incongruity, discomfort, antagonism. Baryshnikov is riveting throughout.
Brilliant Lighting by A.J. Weissbard evocatively captures every detailed move, even in almost complete darkness. Definition, color, and shadows control our focus in tandem with inspired Video Design by Tomek Jeziorski. Both men contribute to powerful, unfussy visuals. Fanciful, cartoon-like cut-outs are low key and stylized. Cycles of eye drawings represent those Nijinsky repeatedly drew with his descent into madness.
Sound Design by Nick Sagar/Ella Wahlstrom and Music by Hal Willner includes everything from abrasive, mechanical cacophony to Bob Dylan, classical sonatas, music box tunes, bird calls, whistles, organ music, screeching, jazz, gun shots and explosions, a banjo number, rock n’roll, marching feet, “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic…”
This intentionally disjointed piece is often trying but also intriguing.
Photos by Julia Cervantes
Letter to a Man
Based on the diary of Vaslav Nijinsky
Featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov
Direction, Set Design, and Lighting Concept by Robert Wilson and Mikhail Baryshnikov
Collaboration to movements and spoken text by Lucinda Childs
Brooklyn Academy of Music BAM Harvey Theater
Through October 30, 2016