Arts & Events

Robert Wilson & Mikhail Baryshnikov Stage Nijinsky’s Diaries

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean with Kathryn Roszak
Friday November 18, 2016 - 02:27:00 PM

When the curtain goes up in Letter to a Man, a collaboration by director Robert Wilson and dancer/actor Mikhail Baryshnikov based on the diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky, a man in white face, Mikhail Baryshnikov, is seated onstage and spotlighted. He speaks in Russian and a male voice is heard speaking ostensibly the same thing in English. Supertitles also give the English version. The words are, “I understand war, because I talk with my mother-in-law.” These words in Russian and English with their English supertitles are repeated again and again, perhaps ten times. Is this a mother-in-law joke or a sign of Nijinsky’s madness? This is only the beginning of a 75-minute hodge-podge of a one-man show put on by Cal Performances purporting to reveal the genius of Vaslav Nijinsky, who was perhaps the greatest dancer as well as one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century, perhaps of all time. It is also the beginning of a show devoted to Nijinsky’s decades-long slide into schizophrenia. Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall hosted this show November 10-13.  

Letter to a Man illuminates nothing about Nijinsky’s art as a dancer or choreographer, and in truth it offers little to illuminate Nijinsky’s mental illness. This show is pretentious and empty; and it is not even technically well-produced. Often, a female voice is heard speaking English. However, while the English-speaking male voice is clear and crisp, the female voice is strangely muffled, making what she says difficult to hear much less understand. So one looks high above the stage at the supertitles rather than at Baryshnikov‘s movements onstage. Even the supertitles, however, are often dimly lit and unreadable, especially when they come and go so quickly one has no time to read them all the way through. Furthermore, why there is a female voice at all is never made clear. Is this supposed to be the voice of Nijinsky’s wife, who took care of him during his long mental illness? Nothing is clear. Everything in this hodge-podge is just thrown together willy-nilly. Nijinsky speaks of sexuality (he was bi-sexual); he speaks of God; there are bits of music hall tunes, a snippet from Arvo Pärt, gospel music, blues, sounds of explosions, and a little girl cut-out pulling a huge chicken cut-out on a leash. Meanwhile, Baryshnikov shimmies, sashays, wafts branches in the air and does a few Charleston moves, all the while avoiding any dance moves associated with Nijinsky. Nothing in this show holds together and makes sense. It’s a portrait, I suppose, of schizophrenia. But who is supposed to be schizophrenic? Nijinsky or Robert Wilson? 

Look, I am no fan of director Robert Wilson. His work rarely moves me. For example, Wilson’s staging of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal at Los Angeles Opera some four or five years ago struck me as outrageously pretentious and empty. Some may say this is only appropriate for Wagner’s pseudo-philosophical ravings in his own Parsifal libretto full of half-baked Christianity, superficial snippets of Buddhism, vegetarianism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and downright fear of female sexuality. But Robert Wilson was not sending up Wagner’s Parsifal; he was taking it seriously and portraying it as profound. Likewise, in Letter to a Man, Wilson and Baryshnikov have explicitly stated that their intention in mounting this show was to illuminate the genius of the gifted but troubled Vaslav Nijinsky.  

Would that they had done so. But they have only shown Nijinsky to be mad without illuminating how or why he became mad or offering more than a bare glimpse of any genius left in Nijinsky by the time he slid into schizophrenia. 

My friend Kathryn Roszak, a noted dancer and choreographer who accompanied me to this show, assures me that Nijinsky’s Diaries are a genuinely inspired work of art. So at the end of this Wilson-Baryshnikov Letter to a Man, I asked Kathryn whether she found this show in any way illuminating of the genius of Nijinsky. 


Kathryn Roszak 

Letter to a Man tells us something about Robert Wilson, something less about Mikhail Baryshnikov, and even less about Vaslav Nijinsky. In putting this show together, Wilson and Baryshnikov assume people know about Nijinsky, his achievements and his slide into madness. But by no means everyone is familiar with the story of Nijinsky’s life, and they need to know what this show doesn’t reveal, namely, that Nijinsky was revered as the greatest dancer and also as the greatest innovator in dance of all time. Nijinsky danced with a marvelous, exotic, almost hypnotic quality, and his leap took people’s breath away. Letter to a Man never even hints at this. Though Mikhail Baryshnikov still has magic and expression in his movements onstage, the choreography (by Lucinda Childs) in this piece avoids anything even remotely suggesting the quality of movement Nijinsky brought to his work onstage. Worse, this show is primarily a mish-mash of extraneous music and extraneous visuals that lack the artistic integration and originality that were the hallmarks of Nijinsky’s choreography in works such as Le Sacre du Printemps set to music by Stravinsky and Prelude a l’après-midi d’un Faun and Jeux with music by Debussy. 

Meanwhile, Robert Wilson gives us lighting effects that merely dazzle and distract us, while Nijinsky’s diary, itself a fantastic document of his combination of genius and madness, is butchered into meaningless sound bites. Letter to a Man presents Nijinsky’s madness in cliché form, starting with Baryshnikov’s straight-jacketed figure at the opening and continuing throughout nthis disjointed and fragmented work. As a child, I saw choreographer Maurice Béjart’s Nijinsky, Clown of God, a show in which multiple dancers portrayed Nijinsky in his greatest roles alongside a huge puppet representing the impresario Serge Diaghilev, who played such an important but ultimately disastrous role in Nijinsky’s life. Bejart’s piece probed infinitely deeper into Nijinsky’s life and art than Letter to a Man, which stays superficially on the surface.