Mikhail Baryshnikov in Robert Wilson’s Letter to a Man
UCLA Center for the Art of Performance, November 2016
By SHANA NYS DAMBROT, NOV 2016
Though operating within the world of live stagecraft, productions by Robert Wilson et cie. have more in common with performance art and early 20th-century avant-garde filmmaking than with traditional concepts of theatre or opera. His signature staccato pacing, high-contrast palette, heavy-handed musical orchestration, poetically stark and evocative dialogue, innovative use of pre-recorded audio, Matisse- and Leger-inflected wardrobe and precision stylized lighting effects all collude to express his unmistakable voice, and it isn’t subtle. Wilson has often collaborated with Mikhail Baryshnikov, the greatest dancer of the modern era, whose legitimate talent as an actor augments his uncanny ability to inhabit and exude physical movement at an emotional, cellular level of transcendent narrative.
Their pairings have gone well before, especially when the inimitable choreographer Lucinda Childs collaborates on movements and spoken text, as she did for their recent production Letter to a Man at BAM and UCLA (where this reviewer saw it produced). The work is based on the personal diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky, arguably the greatest and most daring dancer working in Europe at the turn of the century -- a performer who cast a long shadow over history despite the relative brevity of his career; a shadow that touched both Wilson and Baryshnikov early on, and stayed with them until it no longer became possible to ignore, and this production took shape. Thus Letter to a Man offers a perfect storm of personal, artistic and historical legacies for both men, setting high expectations for all kinds of audiences.
Attenuated allegorical psychological exegesis is Wilson’s happy place already -- so it’s easy to imagine his attraction to stories like that of Vaslav Nijinsky, in resonance with his own art creative muses and personal demons. Nijinsky’s is a story of genius, madness and isolation set against a backdrop of scandal, fantasy and war. For a while circa 1920, Nijinsky felt himself slipping into something like a schizophrenic state, and he kept a real-time diary of the descent, before spending the next several decades in self-imposed isolation until he died in 1950. His breakdown started near the end of WWI and his death at the end of WWII, and in the story the two sets of horrors are somewhat conflated; and in turn presented in the production as the externalization of the devastation raging in the man’s own mind. It’s territory well-suited to allegory, and the narrative might have made more profoundly direct use of it. The lack of overt treatment of the specific circumstance of a madman witnessing worldwide madness felt like a missed opportunity -- or at least an area that left the audience wanting more. Then again, that sort of low-hanging fruit of linear narrative is not necessarily what Wilson fans are looking for.
Instead, a Wilson experience is intense, startling, visceral and cerebral; and this production’s effort to visually articulate the slippery kaleidoscopic psychological state of a brilliant, fracturing personality -- to express and honor the troubled and mysterious interior life of a cultural legend -- is nothing short of epic. First-person libretto culled from the diaries as spoken and pre-recorded by Baryshnikov and Childs, spliced with a charming if jumpy pastiche score organized by Hal Willner presented a zig-zag story of sexual and political adventurism and soul-crushing disillusionment, as a sense of self is undermined in a psychological mirror, with references to his wife and his paramour/bete noire, Ballets Russes founder Sergei Diaghilev. And yet, cutting through the synesthetic pageantry of the production design like a knife, is the body of Mikhail Baryshnikov, whose quality of movement evades and encompasses language, formulating both the most and least commonly human actions with the specificity and humor of dark pantomime and the jaunty, surreal elusiveness of thought itself. It’s understandable why Baryshnikov would have resisted taking on this existentially daunting theatrical legacy, especially as a younger man. But as a mature artist, it is a blessing to the genre that he finally took the risk, and that Wilson was so well-prepared to see it through WM
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Whitehot Magazine, KCET’s Artbound, Flaunt, Fabrik, Art and Cake, Artillery, Palm Springs Life, Riot Material, West Hollywood Lifestyle, Jenkem, and Porter & Sail. She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and exhibition catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.
Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff
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