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Of all the reactions you could imagine to watching Mikhail Baryshnikov move, being bored would probably not be one of them. That is, until now, thanks to director Robert Wilson and his production of Letter to a Man, in which the legendary dancer plays another legendary ballet dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky. Based on the diary entries of the early 20th century dance superstar, written as he was lapsing into schizophrenia, this dance-theater production squanders both its star and its provocative subject matter with its enervating concept and pretentious self-regard. Currently receiving its U.S. premiere courtesy of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the piece will next be performed Nov. 18-19 at UCLA’s Royce Hall.
Although the credits indicate that Letter to a Man is a collaborative exercise, Wilson’s stamp is all over it. The experimental theater director has been regurgitating his stylistic tropes for so long that they have become a virtual parody of themselves. The only one he doesn’t employ here is his trademark slow motion, although the 70-minute piece feels so long that he might was well have.
Baryshnikov — his face painted white like a Pierrot clown and wearing a variety of outfits, including a dapper tuxedo — performs as Nijinsky. He executes a series of dance movements to the accompaniment of diary excerpts, heard in voiceover, and an eclectic musical score. The text, credited to Christian Dumais-Lvowski (the “dramaturgy” is by author Darryl Pinckney) is recited in both Russian and English by Baryshnikov, Wilson and Lucinda Childs, who contributed to the choreography. Supertitles are provided for the Russian passages, but you may wish that they hadn’t been, considering that they consist of such lines as “I understand war, because I fought with my mother-in-law”; “I am not Christ, I am Nijinsky“; and “I will practice masturbation and spiritualism.”
Those unfamiliar with Nijinsky’s tragic life and shortened career will not be illuminated by this abstract piece. As with all of Wilson’s work, Letter to a Man can be visually stunning, with the director using his typically complex lighting design to produce a series of breathtaking images. One particularly impressive moment comes when Nijinsky fully descends into madness, with Baryshnikov writhing spasmodically as the stage becomes drenched in blood red.
The set design, while frequently arresting, is just as often baffling; the meaning of the cardboard cutouts of a little girl dragging a giant chicken is anyone’s guess. The endlessly varied score compiled by veteran music producer Hal Willner, combining selections from Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Arvo Part, among many others, provides little insight.
At age 68, Baryshnikov remains a marvel to behold, moving with seemingly effortless grace and precision. Every gesture, even the most manic, is elegant; even the way he simply holds up his spotlighted hand and spreads his fingers is compelling. That he continues to be productive at this late point in his career is heartening. It’s all the more a shame, then, that his talents in this case haven’t been put to better use.
Venue: BAM Harvey Theater, New York
Cast: Mikhail Baryshnikov
Director, set designer & lighting concept: Robert Wilson with Mikhail Baryshnikov
Text: Christian Dumais-Lvowski
Dramaturgy: Darryl Pickney
Music: Hal Willner
Costume designer: Jacques Reynaud
Collaborator to movements and spoken text: Lucinda Childs
Lighting designer: A.J. Weissbard
Associate set designer: Annick Lavallee-Benny
Sound designers: Nick Sagar, Ella Wahistrom
Video designer: Tomek Jeziorski
Presented by Brooklyn Academy of Music
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