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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A Man of Letters

Mikhail Baryshnikov. Photo: Lucie Jansch
“I am one of Nijinsky’s voices,” Mikhail Baryshnikov commented to a French publication about Robert Wilson’s new one-man-show Letter to a Man, at the BAM Harvey October 15—30. The one-hour play is based on the diaries of dancer and choreographer Vaclav Nijinsky who, despite a short career, left a deep and lasting mark on 20th-century dance. (He created two landmark works of ballet modernism, L’Après-midi d’un Faune and Le Sacre du Printemps.) The fact that Nijinsky’s dancing was never captured on film and that much of his own choreography was lost to time adds to his mystique. Tragically, he went insane at the age of 29 and spent the rest of his life in and out of sanatoriums. The voices Baryshnikov refers to are the disordered identities that collide in his diaries.

These entries, written in 1919 before Nijinsky’s diagnosis (schizophrenia) and internment, are an extraordinary document— a moment-by-moment record of a mind losing its bearings. But their interest isn’t solely psychological. These are also highly poetic, often extremely lucid, spiritually searching texts. Much of the writing reveals a man desperately shuffling the decks in his mind, looking for an answer to who he is. God figures prominently, as do death, war, and sex. He is a man on the edge but also a potent writer; we feel his vertigo. “I’m standing in front of a precipice into which I may fall,” he writes, “but I am not afraid to fall therefore I won’t fall.” (The diaries were published in a 1999 unexpurgated English version, edited by Joan Acocella.)

Until he began the diaries, Nijinsky’s life was defined mainly by external forces: an extraordinary physical gift; an unusual, androgynous beauty; domineering figures—his impresario and his wife—who made important decisions. He was adulated, called “le dieu de la danse,” but behaved passively. He writes, “I have lived for only six months”—in other words, since he began writing. His notebooks are his last gasp.

Mikhail Baryshnikov. Photo: Lucie Jansch
Nijinsky was born in Kiev to Polish parents who performed on the Eastern European equivalent of the vaudeville circuit. He studied dance at the Imperial Theater School in St. Petersburg, joined the Imperial Ballet in 1907, and quickly became a top dancer there, known for his soaring jump and powerful, sensual stage presence. It was said that he lingered in the air at the apex of a leap as if resting there.

In 1908 he was taken in hand by impresario Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes, which conquered Europe with innovative, provocative ballets. (Diaghilev was an early employer of George Balanchine.) Nijinsky quickly became his lover and star, dancing many of the plum roles: the poet in Les Sylphides, the androgynous Spirit in Le Spectre de la Rose, the despondent puppet in Petrouchka, the Blue God in Le Dieu Bleu. Then he began making ballets—strange, radical works that used angular, un-balletic shapes and explored suggestive themes. L’Après-midi d’un Faune ends with an act of self-pleasure; Jeux, now lost, implies an erotic game for three.

But things spiraled out of control. In 1913, partly in defiance of Diaghilev, Nijinsky married a Hungarian hanger-on, Romola de Pulszky, causing a rupture with his mentor. By the end of 1917, estranged from Diaghilev and living in a chalet in St. Moritz, his career essentially finished, Nijinsky unraveled. He drew wild sketches filled with circles and eye-like shapes; one is recreated in Letter to a Man. He began the diaries—the first titled “On Life,” another “On Death.” A further notebook includes unsent letters to important people in his life, including Diaghilev. That note, known as “Letter to a man”—Diaghilev is never named—gave Robert Wilson his title.

It is a hard letter to read: “I cannot call you by name. I am not afraid of you. I know you hate me. I love you as a human being. I do not want to work with you. I want to tell you one thing. I work a lot. I am not dead. I am alive.” And more: “I don’t want your smile, for it smells of death.” After pages of repeated phrases and made up words, it ends: “Sleep in peace, rockabye, bye. Bye. Bye. Bye.”

Letter to a Man
, starring Baryshnikov and staged in Wilson’s surrealist, hyper-precise style, is based on these texts. It doesn’t analyze them, or attempt to evoke the life of the renowned dancer. Baryshnikov’s Nijinsky is a clown, a carnival barker, a mask. Though he moves in stylized steps, at times dancing, his movements are like echoes, however precise, elegant, and beautifully contoured. This is Baryshnikov, after all. As he has said, the show is really about words: “a strange parallel story about the voice of this person.”

Tickets to Letter to a Man are currently unavailable, but don't fret—standby tickets will be released on a first-come, first-served basis at each performance shortly before curtain.

Marina Harss writes on dance for The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Nation, Dance Magazine, The Guardian, and online.

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