Cal Performances presented Mikhail Baryshnikov in four performances of Letter To A Man at Zellerbach Auditorium November 10-13, Robert Wilson’s dramatization of portions of
Nijinsky’s diary, written in a Swiss sanatorium during the early stages of his mental breakdown.
The opening evening the crowd was at capacity for the seventy minute, non-stop exposition of Nijinsky’s comments, spoken in English and then in Baryshnikov’s resonant, precise Russian.
The construction of the work is fascinating, first referring to decades when Nijinsky and his wife Romola resided in the home of Romola’s mother, Emilia Marcus, a noted actress in Hungary, referencing Nijinsky’s encounter with Russian soldiers when they moved into Hungary as Nazi Germany was collapsing, dancing with and for them. A second portion covers what clearly is Nijinsky’s spiritual quest, featuring a projected grey expanse with lone figures negotiating ridges and then a final image on the terrain of a mask, clearly indicating an archaic religious image. The final portion was filled with a backdrop drawing on Nijinsky’s notable drawing of an eye with heavy black oval lines above and beyond, filling the rust colored background until it was obliterated.
Nijinsky’s thoughts were expressed multiple times, reinforcing the obsessive nature of a mind without its usual balance, but with a fascinating, off-kilter perception.
Before the production began, the audience was presented with a row of small double lights at stage’s edge and a procession of tunes reflecting Twenties’ popular music tastes. The choices helped to convey what must have been not only a frenetic world to “normal” people, but extremely disconnecting to someone with mental problems. This impression was reenforced by the vertical framing of Baryshnikov, first in silhouette, then with his features recognizable, sometimes in a chair, other times on a platform, once entirely upside down. The white face, noted in photographs, was difficult to perceive from a distance, but Lucinda Child’s movement assistance showed Baryshnikov the dancer had lost little of his acuity in accent or phrasing, when in silhouette or in plain view, hip wiggles, Fred Astaire-like shuffles, or simply gorgeous accents informed by his balletic experience.
Watching this spare, elegant production I found myself saying, “Oh, say it isn’t so,” while, of course, knowing it was inevitable, though not certain how the finale would look. Baryshnikov was afforded a standing ovation by one of the Bay Area’s most discerning audiences, the attendees at a Cal Performance commissioned production.
The production credits included Text by Christian Damain-Lvowski; Dramaturgy by Darryl Pinckney; Music by Hal Willner; Costumes by Jacques Reynaud; Lighting Design by A. J. Weissbard; Associate set design, Annick Lavallee-Benny; Sound Design by Nick Saga and Ella Wahlstrom; Video design by Tomek Jeziorski, all in service to Wilson’s and Baryshnikov’s direction, set design and lighting concept.
Additional underwriting was provided by Spoleto Festival del 2 Mondi; Brooklyn Academy of Music Center for the Art of Performance, UCLA, collaborating with Teatro del Canal Madrid; Les Ballets de Monte Carlo/Monaco Dance Forum; CRT Teatro dell’Arte.