How do you represent madness on a proscenium stage? What happens when the most notorious dance artist of his generation loses his mind?
Happily for us, the collaboration between Robert Wilson and Mikhail Baryshnikov on Letter to a Man had a terrific third partner to provide a blow-by-blow account of the process by which Nijinsky, Europe’s legendary twentieth-century dancer and choreographer, descended into schizophrenia. The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, written in 1919 and finally issued in an unexpurgated edition in 1995, was released here in English in 1999, with an illuminating introduction by critic Joan Acocella: A rare document, written by the “patient” himself during a psychological crisis, it abounds with imagery and cadences ripe for theatrical transformation.
Nijinsky’s a role Baryshnikov was born to play. Both moved to St. Petersburg as very young students, trained at the same ballet school, and became the premier male dancers of their respective eras. But Baryshnikov, defecting first to Canada and then to the U.S., made an astonishing career for himself on stage, in film, and in television, while the 27-year-old Nijinsky, who chose marriage to a woman over his lucrative intimate and professional connections to ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev and was banished at the height of his fame, went mad. Baryshnikov is still dancing in his seventh decade, while Nijinsky was shut away in various homes and asylums in Europe from late 1917 until his death in 1950. This period takes in post–World War I trauma and scarcity and extends through World War II; the diary is a meditation on violence and death, on religious awakening, on sexuality and shame.
Although Baryshnikov is the only live performer in Letter to a Man, other figures populate the vaulted space of the Harvey, built in 1904 as a vaudeville house. The recorded voice, clipped and patrician, of choreographer Lucinda Childs narrates Nijinsky’s somber sentences. Visual marvels by Wilson, including a breakaway straitjacket, the figure of Diaghilev (the “man” of the title) floating in a bathtub, a flaming sword that melts into a crucifix, and a cutout child leading a large, flat chicken across the stage, illustrate the evolving madness. An animation of a single eye replicates Nijinsky’s own drawings. There’s a leitmotif of nature imagery: Huge flowers descend; eagles, metaphors for human monsters, appear in image and word. But finally it is Misha’s dancing, light and fleet soft-shoe steps below his white tie and tails, that tears at the heart.
Nick Sagar and Ella Wahlström’s sound mix evokes the period between Nijinsky’s breakdown and his death. A whinnying horse and the click of a camera shutter, the tick of a metronome and the whir of a machine gun nudge the piece forward when the mise-en-scène seems to move in circles. Hal Willner’s eclectic score juxtaposes music-hall ditties with Cole Porter and the anachronistic but oddly appropriate 1966 novelty number “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!”
Letter is, by Wilsonian standards, very short, barely more than an hour. Extended blackouts allow our Nijinsky surrogate to change his jacket and mop his brow, or to be hung upside down in a floating chair. After a sojourn in the wilder reaches of his disordered mind, we are returned to a stage within the stage, to a final danced assertion of Nijinsky’s eloquence even in his madness. Almost as one, the audience rises to its feet.
Letter to a Man
Directed, designed, and lighted by Robert Wilson with Mikhail Baryshnikov
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton Street
Through October 30
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 25, 2016