Performing Arts: Theater
November 4, 2016
Vaslav Nijinsky’s own words comprise the text of Robert Wilson’s Letter to a Man, arranged by Christian Dumais-Lvowski, incidentally chronicling a decline in mental health amid a telling guise of feigned coherence. Wilson presents them in a process both self-evident and captivating. A short passage is repeated in alternating English and Russian. With each shift of language, new words accumulate, though the information is unwavering. Subject matter is diverse, rarely mentioning dance, and strictly divided into separate chapters, which allows the development of content to spiral into unpredictable circularity.

Wilson showcases Nijinsky on the body of Mikhail Baryshnikov at BAM’s Harvey Theatre as a philosopher and a theologian, obsessed with morality and carnality, eternally struggling with his self-admitted ego (repeated reminders that he is not Christ abounding). He sees his madness as a test from God for the good of others (in itself, a somewhat egotistical claim), struggling as Diaghilev permeates his memories from the two-dimensional slowness of a crossing bathtub.

The text is delivered largely in voice-over, by Baryshnikov and Lucinda Childs’ low lull. This places us more in the head of a schizophrenic than simply listening to one speak. Delivery ranges from monotone to jovial, yet there are times when Baryshnikov speaks live, repeating a phrase from voice-over with slow, tragic affect that demonstrates how these internal thoughts malfunction en route to external expression.

Baryshnikov is rightly freer in his movement than often seen in Wilson works, yet still subject to Childs’ compositional rigor. Gloved hands signal from held postures. Several clunky dance breaks lie somewhere between vaudevillian schmaltz and cubist corners. Somehow the physical material functions in the opposite way of the text – where there is sense to be found in long explanations versus short cryptic statements, the long sequences of movement tend to ramble while the short abstractions carry wisdom. It is ultimately his face that ties everything together in mischievously sorrowful sweetness, present among frowns, smiles, and grimaces.

As we don’t truly hear madness until we are made to feel outside when Baryshnikov speaks live, we only get a visual sense of madness at the beginning, made to feel outside by seeing him in the straight jacket during an unnerving collage of screaming, gunshots, and rapid light shifts that externalize schizophrenia. When we are inside his mind, the same content comprises peaceful landscapes, equally surreal, but logically unified and kept at bay. Inside or out, however, it is always lonely – stagehands often clear these landscapes midscene, leaving an unaware Baryshnikov frolicking in blankness.

This intense artifice gets at a different kind of realism – the actual sensation of thoughts as an independent being in our heads. The way text repeats and flares is no different than our thoughts’ intrusive propensities. Every landscape, still connoting physical space, encapsulates the whimsy of daydreams, and the lack of choice we often have in what out imagination projects in us. This lucid look at madness forms to reflect the struggle of Nijinsky – fractured finesse.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews

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