“Letter to a Man”
Robert Wilson/Mikhail Baryshnikov
BAM Harvey Theater
October 29, 2016
by Martha Sherman
copyright © 2016 by Martha Sherman
In his white chalk face and tuxedo, the mid-20th century dance icon Mikhail Baryshnikov inhabited the fragile, febrile mind of his early 20th century predecessor in the offering created with Robert Wilson of “Letter to a Man,” drawn from the journals of Vaslav Nijinksy. In a textured environment of sound, lighting, set, and design that veered from harsh and geometric to dreamy and approximate, Baryshnikov, still a beautiful and graceful mover at 68, twisted and floated through the texts of the mentally unstable, but also deeply gifted, Nijinsky.
Mikhail Baryshnikov in "Letter to a Man." Photo ©Julia Cervantes
A framed portrait of Nijinsky was hung on the closed black stage curtain as the audience entered, lit from below by a row of bright bead-like footlights, like the harsh but illuminating lights of a vaudeville show (the lighting, by A. J. Weissbard, pulled no punches.) When the curtain opened, Baryshnikov was framed, too, in a bright white-lit box of space, on a simple white chair in a straitjacket, as the voices in his head began to manifest. That chair, and the cell of white light, returned several more times to frame, support, capture the character. In one scene, the seated Baryshnikov floated halfway up in the air – and in another, the chair was upside down, as a Nijinsky-figure hung suspended. (One of the texts echoed: “I am not Christ. I am Nijinsky.”)
As the dancer sat, we heard a phrase from Nijinsky’s journal, like the punchline of a deranged vaudeville joke “I learned about war from fighting with my mother-in-law.” Text repetitions were manic. Voiceovers in many guises (male, female, English, Russian) echoed as if roiling inside Nijinsky’s disturbed mind. Sometimes Baryshinikov spoke the words, too, in Russian or in his distinctively Russian-inflected English. Often the words were repeated in supertitles on three screens overhead (Wilson, so identified with opera, used the opera technology to keep adding layers as both distraction and depth.)
There was a music layer, too, much of it rhythmic, highlighting the ends of scenes or ideas with highlighted tones or drum beats. But the score also wended among unexpected pop tunes, from Bob Dylan’s opening “If Dogs Run Free” (“why aren’t we?”) to a manic backdrop of the 1966 oddball piece “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haa!” Snippets of journal phrases were repeated almost music, too. The canons of language and repetition felt the way a thought sometimes does, parked in the brain, unwelcome but not able to be banished.
Each scene built on a phrase of text and an image. Some images were the set, like a high curved clerestory window of a church – or an asylum -- set on the black stage, where the dancer gazed out. The enormous film images playing on the back wall (video design by Tomek Jesiorski) were shamelessly dramatic; one, of an enormous dead soldier splayed in a muddy field, was the backdrop of Baryshnikov’s (diminutive) silhouette, arms outstretched as well. Again, in lesser hands this would have been a cliché. But when Baryshnikov’s beautiful fingers unfurled, they were hypnotizing.
The movement was simple but evocative (Lucinda Childs was credited not with choreography but with “collaboration to movements and spoken text.”) Against wintry trees, Baryshnikov walked simply and slowly in a horizontal line across stage then was echoed by a second silhouette and a third doppelganger (wearing the same overcoat and hat) who followed, mirroring and haunting the dancer. Baryshnikov’s walk had his familiar grace, and suggested an ache for the splendor of his younger decades. The emotional connection to “our” aging dancer connected us even more powerfully to the dancer he portrayed.
Baryshnikov wafted around the stage with two branches, graceful extensions of his arms as the bare trees of the background woods embraced him, like the image of the dancers in The Seventh Seal in their wilderness (the text here included the hard to believe “I am not afraid of death.”)
It took a while for the text to arrive at Diaghelev, first in a light dribble, an aside, but increasingly central to the chorus inside Nijinsky’s head. The impresario’s power over the dancer’s ego and sanity grew (“I know terrible things from Diaghelev. And simple things…”) Nijinsky’s love and fear of his master bubbled through his words.
In a stylized final pose, wide-eyed and smiling, Baryshnikov bid the audience farewell with the shout: “Vaslav Nijinsky.” As the curtain closed, the young subject’s painted face returned to view. Neither his brilliant short career, nor his frantic mind was evident in that innocent portrait. In the layers of text and texture, Wilson and Baryshnikov offered their differently layered portrait. Their brief foray into the artist’s head was a moving taste of madness.
All Photos: Mikhail Baryshnikov in "Letter to a Man." ©Julia Cervantes
copyright © 2016 by Martha Sherman