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above: Pictured: Designed and directed by Robert Wilson and Mikhail Baryshnikov, Letter to a Man is performed Thursday–Sunday, November 10–13, 2016 in Zellerbach Hall. (credit: copyright © 2015 Lucy Jansch)
Baryshnikov & Wilson’s Letter to a Man – Breathtaking!
Pictured: Designed and directed by Robert Wilson and Mikhail Baryshnikov, Letter to a Man is performed Thursday–Sunday, November 10–13, 2016 in Zellerbach Hall. (credit: copyright © 2015 Lucy Jansch)
Review by Jo Tomalin
Two award winning artists, legendary dancer and actor Mikhail Baryshnikov and renowned theater director and visual artist Robert Wilson presented their acclaimed production and West Coast premiere Letter to a Man at Zellerbach Hall, November 10-12, 2016, as part of the Berkeley RADICAL Innovation season-long thematic strand at Cal Performances.
Both Wilson and Baryshnikov share credit for direction, set design, and lighting concept for Letter to a Man. This is the second collaboration of Baryshnikov and Wilson, having presented the expressionistic and abstract piece, The Old Woman, at Cal Performances in November, 2014.
In Letter to a Man, Wilson and Baryshnikov explore the celebrated dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky through his diary that he wrote in Switzerland near the end of WWII, when struggling against madness and succumbing to schizophrenia.
Sitting on a narrow chair wearing a strait jacket, Baryshnikov makes an instantaneous change into a black tuxedo. A stark white set at first, abstract imagery, then fair ground music, flashing lights and beautiful surreal projections are all part of the magic as Wilson vividly creates an unknown world inside Nijinsky’s disturbed mind while Baryshnikov plays a man from the point of view of Nijinsky’s schizophrenia and lucidity, not recreating his life as a dancer.
Pictured: Designed and directed by Robert Wilson and Mikhail Baryshnikov, Letter to a Man. (credit: copyright © 2015 Lucy Jansch)
Baryshnikov does perform several short pieces of glorious free and expressive dance and stylized movements in Letter to a Man. Eminent dancer and choreographer Lucinda Childs collaborated on movements and spoken text in this production. The first physicality is full of delicious detail to arm and body gestures that are sometimes punctuated by ratchet sounds – it is fascinating. Soon after another physical sequence is saucy. A movement piece with chair is particularly emotive, with Baryshnikov’s beautiful understated visceral movement and acting evoking a moment of Nijinsky’s memory of his mentor and lover, Diaghilev. Baryshnikov is in whiteface for the entire show, which highlights his features and adds to the absurdist expressionistic style of the piece.
Voices in Russian and English, some recorded by Baryshnikov, with English titles, are sprinkled through the piece, drawing succinct meaningful phrases and rumination from Nijinsky’s meticulously chronicled journey, such as “I understand war,” “I am not God, I am a beast”.
An interesting mix of music from the 40s and 50s and other eras sets the tone, with a slightly funky “Teddy Bears Picnic” and rhythmic “Let’s Misbehave” with music by Hal Willner. Additional collaborators include dramatic lighting design by A.J. Weissard, dramaturgy by Darryl Pinckney, and smart and classy costumes by Jacques Reynard.
The arc of the seventy-minute show with no intermission builds well and offers many surprises. Comprising several contrasting scenes, which flow from one to the other through Baryshnikov’s brilliant physical acting and Wilson’s lighting, animations, clever cut out props, floating fabric and more – all treated with sensitivity, raw melancholy reality and ironic humor. The large stage is constantly transformed in perspective, and with crazed to dreamlike to resilient moments.
This show is stream of conscious, poetic, strange and soulful, stark, warm and vibrant – it’s exciting and masterful theatre! It’s genius!
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