Baryshnikov portrays schizoid mind of Nijinsky
I kept waiting for a melting kitchen sink to appear.
Because “Letter to a Man,” legendary ballet dancer-choreographer-actor Mikhail Baryshnikov’s latest performance piece at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, had surreal everything else in it.
Including an intrinsic ability to bewilder me.
For his Cal Performances appearances, Soviet-born Baryshnikov entered the scary schizophrenic mind of the even more legendary ballet dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, in 1919 (three decades before Baryshnikov was born).
Based on Nijinsky’s diary and a letter he addressed to Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes who made him — his lover and protégé — into a star.
As if a poetic dream state had been conceived by painter Salvador Dali.
Mostly, there was a darkness reminiscent of Bob Fosse and Kander & Ebb. But that was sharply contrasted by bouncy dance steps and frolicking music ranging from Tom Waits to avant-garde classical Russian melodies to “The Teddy Bears Picnic.”
However, it was Baryshnikov’s macabre look (vampire or Count Dracula-ish at times), aided by over-the-top makeup (including a second set of eyebrows) that made it a complex, dense drama that danced around the bisexual Nijinsky’s marriage to a rich Hungarian aristocrat who bore him a daughter.
The 70-minute play featured voice-overs by Baryshnikov (in both English and Russian, with supertitles flashed above the stage), director-set designer-lighting maven Robert Wilson and choreographer-dancer Lucinda Childs.
Because he’s now 68, no attempt to simulate Nijinksy’s famed leap was made by the former artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre.
But he did take a leap of faith that the audience knew at least something about Nijinksy.
From the opening scene, in which Baryshnikov appeared as Nijinsky in a strait jacket, to the final curtain, I was always engrossed (though not always enchanted).
Baryshnikov told The Guardian last year the play “is about a troubled man and his relationship with his art, with God, with family, with moral issues.”
But to get there, Baryshnikov utilized repetitive dialogue as choppy as Nijinsky’s mind:
“I like lunatics.”
“I’ll practice masturbation and spiritualism”
“I’m a predator.”
He also alluded to war and peace.
And — mesmerizing, of course, for me and many other Bay Area residents — earthquakes.
As expected, Baryshnikov’s movements were extraordinary. The simplest twitch successfully delineated emotion. Outstretched arms, hands and fingers dramatically illustrated stress.
And Fred Astaire-like grace showed a lighter side.
The stagecraft (including little figures moving in slo-mo on a vast wasteland) were likewise extraordinary. As were deafening sounds (including the rat-a-tat-tat of a machine gun) and Wilson’s lighting effects.
The matinee performance I watched drew an interesting response from the packed audience. About one-third instantly rose for a rousing ovation. A second group clapped politely. And the last third sat motionless — seemingly stunned.
I understood all three reactions.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, “Letter” ended up being an enigma wrapped in an enigma buried in an enigma. Yet if I had only one word to describe it, that would be “unique.”
Still, I do believe that if I saw the show 50 times, I’d be apt to have 51 opinions of it.
Upcoming Cal Performances that will also be unique include the taiko drumming of Kodo on Jan. 28 and 29 and the comic all-male troupe, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, March 3 and 4. Information: (510) 642-9988 or www.calperfs.berkeley.edu/.