By Jane Rosenberg
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, Letter to a Man is a one man show delving 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 all the ingredients of a sure-fired success: a visionary director and one of the world’s greatest dancers portraying a pivotal figure of ballet. Instead it paired mind-numbing repetition with perplexing music assembled into a Wilsonian vaudeville show. The pre-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 usual 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, we have 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 given us less repetition and more complexity.
After marrying a Hungarian woman, 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 take us into the complicated mind-set of this troubled soul, we have to look for meaning elsewhere. The music gives us no clues – 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-Haa!” (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)? I’m sure there are justifications for imbuing the production with a contemporary, relatable feel – universality of experience and all that – but we are ultimately left in the dark. What should be tragic and poetic turns cute and satirical.
All that remains to convey Nijinsky’s soul is Baryshnikov’s movements – arms arcing through space holding tree branches, legs kicking out in a doll-like straight leg dance, or skittering across 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, all but disappearing his feet and lower legs and blurring his upper body. 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.
Nijinsky – Mikhail Baryshnikov
Direction, set design, lighting concept – Robert Wilson with Mikhail Baryshnikov Based on the Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, Text – Christian Dumais-Lvowski
Dramaturgy – Darryl Pinckney Music – Hal Willner Costumes – Jacques Reynaud Collaboration to 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
To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.
.Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children. Jane is also the author and illustrator of DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets