LETTER TO A MAN with Mikhail Baryshnikov – July 2016
Opéra Garnier Monte-Carlo
In a recent interview for the French newspaper, Le Figaro, Mikhail Baryshnikov speaks of a life-long affinity with Vaslav Nijinsky. He saw photos of the legendary Russian ballet dancer while still a child in Riga and later, as a student of the Vaganova School in Leningrad, he found books and photos in the school’s library. It was understood that mention of Nijinsky, along with his contemporaries at the Maryinsky Ballet, Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina, was a ‘delicate’ subject following their departure from Russia in 1909 to work with the Diaghilev Ballets Russes in Paris. However, Baryshnikov’s first stage appearance while still at school, was as Petruskha, one of Nijinsky’s greatest roles.
Shortly after Baryshnikov had himself defected during a tour with a group from the Kirov Ballet in Canada in 1974, he was approached by the Swedish film maker, Ingmar Bergman wishing to make a film of Nijinsky’s life. Another offer was made when the Russian choreographer, Leonide Massine, having followed him persistently around Europe, attempted to persuade him to spend several months on his Mediterranean island home reconstructing Nijinsky’s 1916 ballet Til Eulenspiegel. However, Baryshnikov was then at the peak of his dancing career and constantly in demand notably by American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet. In 1980 he was appointed director of ABT where he stayed for ten years before retiring from classical ballet and founding, with Mark Morris, his own contemporary dance company, The White Oak Project. He also branched into films and acting, on and off-Broadway, and in 2005 he launched the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York with the aim of creating and presenting multi-disciplinary art forms.
Letter to a Man is his second collaboration with the eminent, if controversial, theatre director, Robert Wilson, famous for his ‘performing art’ experimental theatre in the 1970’s. The one-man show was premiered at the Spoleto Festival in 2015 and has toured Europe this summer. It is based on Nijinsky’s diaries, written during the winter of 1918-1919, when his brief but brilliant dancing career had come to an end and his tragic descent into madness had become inevitable. Performed at the Opera House in Monte-Carlo the work gained an extra quality of nostalgia for it was here that, from 1911, the Ballets Russes had their home base, where Nijinsky worked and rehearsed daily when the company reformed each season, and where he had enjoyed such triumphs as a dancer.
On entering the gilded, glittering opera house auditorium, a photo of the young Nijinsky hung in the centre of the house curtain, lit by a row of footlights, while popular songs and dance music from the 1920’s were played. The opening of the performance was then all the more dramatic on finding Baryshnikov seated centre stage, in a shaft of brilliant white light while a violent whistling wind was followed by crashes of electronic sound. The lights flashed on and off, Baryshnikov constantly changing his character from cowering victim to a grotesque monster, as he was lit from below, from above, from behind, and while excerpts from the diaries were recited in Russian and in English. Sirens and rifles shots followed by “war, war, war”, “I know war”, and then – “I am not Christ, I am Nijinsky” repeated endlessly. It soon becomes clear that this is a performance packed with stage, light, sound and film effects, scene following scene, the changes ever more violent. The diaries speak of his brother, committed to asylum as a child, of his mother, and there are also excerpts from his wife, Romola’s biography of her husband. There are many stunning, beautiful images, but also curious ones such as a cut-out cartoon-like duck and a small, black-faced child being rolled on, Diaghilev sailing by in a bathtub, various birds and animals flying past. The stage is mostly very dark with Baryshnikov often in silhouette, dressed in a black suit, sometimes a tailcoat and with a whitened face and exaggerated make-up, rather like the MC in the musical Cabaret.
Arguably, the greatest classical dancer of his generation, (although fans of Nureyev and Bujones would disagree) now 68, Baryshnikov restricts himself to gentle, lyrical movements which appeared to be almost improvised. There are some flashes of a music hall entertainer and some more structured and dramatic reactions to the text, but here also, repetition sets in and the pauses between the scenes become longer as the evening progresses. The musical score is a mishmash of electronic sounds, contemporary music and popular songs, including ‘Tea for Two’ and even ‘They’re coming to take me away, ho ho’ which adds to a general feeling of superficiality. Nijinsky referred to the diaries as his ‘marriage with God’, he wished to convert the world to the Tolstoyian ideal of peace and religion, away from materialism and opportunism, and even to vegetarianism. With pyrotechnics dominating, I found Baryshnikov’s performance strangely passive, and even contrived, with little sense of Nijinsky’s struggle and final tragedy.