With a career spanning six decades on stages across the world, Mikhail Baryshnikov, arguably the foremost ballet dancer of the end of the 20th century, has conquered every possible challenge he may have imagined. Ever since his 1974 defection from the USSR, he danced all over the globe, ran the American Ballet theatre as artistic director, and even dipped into big screen territory with White Nights and The Turning Point, which won him an Oscar nomination, and TV with his popular role in Sex and the City. At the end of his classical career, he turned to developing contemporary choreography works and theatre. Buenos Aires fans have seen him dancing many years ago and acting, as recently as 2014, alongside Willem Dafoe in The Old Woman, based on a short story by absurdist Russian author Daniil Kharms, directed by veteran theatre director Robert Wilson.
In what may be his “last performance” in Argentina, as the artist said in a press conference with Wilson this week in Buenos aires, Baryshnikov is playing Vaslav Nijinsky, the legendary ballet dancer of the early 20th century, whose rise to myth status led many to consider him the greatest male dancer of all time.
Nijinsky’s leap to fame, due to his prodigious talent and relationship with mentor/lover Sergei Diaghilev at the Ballets Russes, is widely known. although there are no recordings of his performances, he bewitched audiences and when he turned his eye to choreography, the results were revolutionary. His version of Afternoon of a Faun (1912) was shocking at the time and his Le Sacré du Printemps caused a riot. What is usually less dwelled on is Nijinsky’s decline following his separation from Diaghilev: as his mentor was terrified of crossing the sea, Nijinsky was left to his own devices on a tour to South America; he married Romola de Pulszky in Buenos aires in 1913, which led to an abrasive split from Diaghilev.
By the end of 1917, the world’s greatest male dancer was out of work, living with his wife and three-year-old daughter in St. Moritz, where he began to slowly go insane. In 1919, over the course of six weeks from January to March, Nijinsky wrote a diary, recording his fragmented thoughts about the horrors of war, his clashes with religion, the essence of God and his own divinity, his struggles with his own sexuality and lurid fantasies, his mounting fears and obsessions. Diaghilev looms large in the diary although he is never named. There is a series of letters included in the diary, one of which begins “To a Man.” This is where Wilson takes his title for the one-man-show starring Baryshnikov as the dancer falling into schizophrenia.
“This piece isn’t the story of Nijinsky’s life; it’s the interpretation of his diary, the document of a disturbed man’s descent into madness,” Baryshnikov said this week in BA, defining the one-man-show as a “fascinating collage of ideas” about the dancer’s relationship with “God, his pacifism, his manifesto as an artist, as a husband, as a father, as a creator.”
Wilson and Baryshnikov’s Letter to a Man is a collage of quotes from the Nijinsky’s diary, repeated alternatively in English and Russian. Baryshnikov appears in whiteface, in a vaudeville of sorts, be it in a scene among big cut-outs made of wood (of a little girl, a chicken) or on a set where he is surrounded by cliffs. Wilson’s mastery with lighting is again manifest, from shadows to bursting rays of light to colour.
After ending his diary entries, Nijinsky was institutionalised and spent his remaining days in and out of asylums. He rarely spoke, suffered from intense bouts of psychosis when he would attack people or paint the walls of his room with his faeces. He went on to live for 30 more years and never recovered nor danced again. that, however, is not the Nijinsky of the searing portrait from Letter to a Man. What Wilson and Baryshnikov deliver is not the hardcore insanity of the mad genius gone completely off the rails but rather a particular glimpse into the changing universe of a man and ultimately, an artist.
Said Nijinsky in his unsparing diary: “I am God. I am a man. I am good and not a beast. I am an animal with reason. I have flesh, I *am* flesh, I am not descended from flesh. Flesh is created by God. I am God. I am God. I am God.”
Where and When
Teatro Coliseo (Marcelo T. de Alvear 1125). Today and September 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16 at 8.30pm. Tomorrow and September 17 at 6.30pm. Tickets from 700 pesos on www.ticketek.com.ar.