The legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky succumbed to mental illness toward the end of the First World War, and he kept a diary for six and a half weeks that vividly and painfully documented his struggle to keep hold of his reason. Robert Wilson’s Letter to a Man begins with what sounds like the whir of a dental drill and then the sight of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Nijinsky in a straightjacket. We hear the pianola theme from Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958), a film in which Marlene Dietrich stares at Welles’s sheriff and tells him that he has no future and that, “It’s all used up.” But the concept of this performance is that Nijinsky comes to life one more time in 1945, toward the end of the Second World War, before his death in 1950.
Wilson has always used and favored repetition in his work, and so the mentally unbalanced repetitions in Nijinsky’s diary are very conducive to his style. Excerpts from the diary are read to us in both English and Russian, sometimes by Baryshnikov (in both languages) and sometimes by others as this ghost Nijinsky moves about the stage and sometimes sticks out his tongue at us. Baryshnikov emphasizes the childish nature of Nijinsky and especially his child-like vulgarity and his basically innocent relation to sex before he caves in to religious guilt.
There comes a moment when Baryshnikov’s Nijinsky stares out at the audience and starts to do a classic striptease, taking off one arm of his jacket and then the other before slowly moving his hand down his own ass and then placing it lasciviously into his pocket. This gets across the sexual exhibitionism that made Nijinsky famous when he humped a scarf on stage in his notorious dance to Debussy’s “The Afternoon of a Faun” in 1912.
Baryshnikov has said that he was asked to play the role of Nijinsky many times during his career, including once in the late 1970s when Ingmar Bergman wanted to make a film about Nijinsky and his mentor and lover Diaghilev, but these opportunities never came to fruition. When he was approached by Wilson to do Letter to a Man, Baryshnikov felt that it was now or never, for he is in his late sixties even if he looks and moves like a man at least twenty years younger.
Baryshnikov handles the spoken parts of the evening with style, but it is in the movement sections of the piece that he really puts his distinctive stamp on everything, one great dancer in autumn paying tribute to another great dancer in mental disarray. As such, Letter to a Man can often be very sad, especially when Nijinsky’s thoughts in the diary move from madman visionary to just incoherent madman. There is often a sense in the diary and in this performance that Nijinsky’s illness allows him to say things and see things that no sane person would ever say or perceive, but the price is an eventual plunge into total mental darkness.
Baryshnikov is often most touching and expressive here when his movements and his accent are most Russian, and there is something very moving about just hearing him say that name “Nijinsky” over and over again in a thick Russian accent. It is fitting that this performance ends, finally, with Baryshnikov saying this dancer’s full name, as if to say, “Ta Da!” in the face of Nijinsky’s 1940s obscurity and imminent death. There is no film of Nijinsky dancing, but there are photographs and the testimony of others, and this has kept his legacy alive just as Letter to a Man adds one more heartfelt tribute to that legacy.