Only the cruelest of Gods would have bothered to create Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950), the Russian dancer who burst to fame with the groundbreaking Russian dance company Ballet Russes under the direction of the impresario Serge Diaghilev. To fashion a mind and body that approached the perfection of music and then to let it shatter and decay into madness, and all of it just before the age of film, is the work of a punk and a sadist.
The celebrated Russian-American dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov has had plenty of offers to play Nijinsky and has wisely, so far, said, no. Taking on an artist more myth than man is a probable path to failure. And yet as the 68-year old Baryshnikov has gently aged from the amazing dancer he was to the sly actor and conceptual artist he is today, the question of Nijinsky returned. In collaboration with the iconoclastic stage director Robert Wilson, a master of light and stillness, he may have realized that there was a different Nijinsky waiting just for him.
So in Cal Performances' presentation of their touring production Letter to a Man, Baryshnikov and Wilson begin with Nijinsky the diarist, who in the act of going mad tries to explain what it means to have the grace of God in your art, or as the man himself proclaimed in the diary he wrote in 1919 right before he was institutionalized: "I am God. I am spirit. I am a man of love." As painful as it is to read Nijinsky's journal, to see these rambling, chaotic thoughts staged with such rigor is to fall into a world of exasperating beauty.
The performance begins with Baryshnikov sitting in a chair -- a ridiculous opener for a dancer playing a dancer. His makeup and demeanor resemble nothing less than a Kabuki mask of pain and surprise. In English and Russian, he says, “I understand war because I fought with my mother-in-law.” The audience laughs at what seems an easy joke, but the laughter ceases when the sentence and the image start to mutate into fragments.
The lights black out and return so fast, Baryshnikov changes his expression so slightly, and the sentence keeps on breaking into bits and pieces -- “I understand war,” “mother-in-law,” “fought” -- to the point that you feel like you're having a seizure. Barely anything happens and yet the scene is a sensory overload. Like most of Letter to a Man, we only get a glimpse of Nijinsky’s genius, but his descent into madness is catalogued with an infinite and loving care.