Only the cruelest of Gods would have bothered to create Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950), the Russian dancer who burst to fame with the groundbreaking Russian dance company Ballet Russes under the direction of the impresario Serge Diaghilev. To fashion a mind and body that approached the perfection of music and then to let it shatter and decay into madness, and all of it just before the age of film, is the work of a punk and a sadist.
The celebrated Russian-American dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov has had plenty of offers to play Nijinsky and has wisely, so far, said, no. Taking on an artist more myth than man is a probable path to failure. And yet as the 68-year old Baryshnikov has gently aged from the amazing dancer he was to the sly actor and conceptual artist he is today, the question of Nijinsky returned. In collaboration with the iconoclastic stage director Robert Wilson, a master of light and stillness, he may have realized that there was a different Nijinsky waiting just for him.
So in Cal Performances’ presentation of their touring production Letter to a Man, Baryshnikov and Wilson begin with Nijinsky the diarist, who in the act of going mad tries to explain what it means to have the grace of God in your art, or as the man himself proclaimed in the diary he wrote in 1919 right before he was institutionalized: “I am God. I am spirit. I am a man of love.” As painful as it is to read Nijinsky’s journal, to see these rambling, chaotic thoughts staged with such rigor is to fall into a world of exasperating beauty.
The performance begins with Baryshnikov sitting in a chair — a ridiculous opener for a dancer playing a dancer. His makeup and demeanor resemble nothing less than a Kabuki mask of pain and surprise. In English and Russian, he says, “I understand war because I fought with my mother-in-law.” The audience laughs at what seems an easy joke, but the laughter ceases when the sentence and the image start to mutate into fragments.
The lights black out and return so fast, Baryshnikov changes his expression so slightly, and the sentence keeps on breaking into bits and pieces — “I understand war,” “mother-in-law,” “fought” — to the point that you feel like you’re having a seizure. Barely anything happens and yet the scene is a sensory overload. Like most of Letter to a Man, we only get a glimpse of Nijinsky’s genius, but his descent into madness is catalogued with an infinite and loving care.
At one point Wilson transforms the stage into a long rectangle of light, making you feel like the black sky is weighing down on your head and the endless road before you is stretching out forever. We hear the diary entry: “I went out for a walk once and it seemed to me there was blood in the snow, and so I ran following the trail. I had the impression that somebody had killed a man but he was alive.”
What follows is some of the most beautiful walking you can imagine — hesitant, then leaping forward with great force, then somehow happening all over again. The choreography has the feel of a strip of film come to life. Then you notice that as Nijinsky investigates the bloody trail, right behind him, almost tiptoeing in pursuit, is his shadow, strikingly offset against a thick white fog. There seems to be no possible end or reconciliation, only the belief that a murdered man should be alive, and that a man and his shadow can never be one.
It’s as if the piece obsessively reminds us that the only Nijinsky we get is the one that has been violently severed from himself. At one point he takes off his jacket — a relatively simple gesture — but does it with such grace that you end up wishing that you could do the same. That doing so might be the beginning of your entrance to the divine, as it is for Nijinsky a memory of how beautiful and perfect he once was. As the scene ends the jacket takes center stage and the dancer disappears.
And it is that split — the memory of a body, mind, and art in accordance with God — that makes Letter to a Man, though brilliant, a difficult and rough go. Because in the end we can’t make it, and invariably come up short. Even with Baryshnikov and Wilson leading the way, two astounding and accomplished artists, they can only get us to Nijinsky the disaster. The other Nijinsky, well, he’s just a cruel rumor of heaven.
‘Letter to a Man’ runs through Sunday, Nov. 13 at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. For tickets and information, click here.