Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950) is considered by many to have been the greatest male dancer of the 20th Century. Born in Kiev, Ukraine to Polish parents Tomasz Niżyński and Eleonora Bereda, who were also dancers, he was performing lead roles with the Imperial Ballet at the young age of 18. Nijinsky later met Sergei Diaghilev and, along with Prima Ballerina Anna Pavlova, performed with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris in 1909, continuing to perform with the Ballets Russes for another 10 years. Those of us who saw Mikhail Baryshnikov perform with American Ballet Theatre and his company White Oak (1990-2002) during his prime might challenge who was the better dancer. Because we do not have adequate film footage of Nijinsky performing, however, it is difficult to determine who owns that title.

Mikhail Baryshnikov in <i>Letter to a Man</i> © Lucie Jansch
Mikhail Baryshnikov in Letter to a Man
© Lucie Jansch

In 1919, Nijinsky was diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed to an asylum in Switzerland. This event ended his dancing career and it is where, in just six weeks, he wrote his diaries. It is this period of Nijinsky’s life and his diaries that collaborators Mikhail BaryshnikovRobert Wilson and choreographer Lucinda Childs chose to put their focus on for Letter to a Man  which was presented by CAP UCLA at Royce Hall. Robert Wilson is best known for his lengthy and slow paced productions, which included Deafman Glance (1970), A Letter for Queen Victoria (1974-1975), and Einstein on the Beach (1976). More recently, Wilson has worked on Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, Brecht/Weill’s Threepenny Opera, Puccini’s Madam Butterfly and Verdi’s La Traviata. Lucinda Childs’s career includes working with the Judson Dance Theater, creating over 50 works for Lucinda Childs Dance (founded in 1973), collaborating on several productions with Robert Wilson and Philip Glass, and choreographing and directing 16 opera productions. Among her awards, Childs holds the rank of Commander in France’s Order of Arts and Letters.

With these three major talents working together, one would expect to see an outstanding production. Letter To A Man is not, however, all that wonderful. Baryshnikov speaks dialogue from Nijinsky’s diaries in Russian and in English, and we hear the voice of Lucinda Childs as Nijinsky’s wife, Romola. The dialogue is recited repeatedly to the point of ad nauseam to, I presume, demonstrate the insane rantings of Nijinsky during his time in the Swiss asylum.

The program lists credits for direction, set design and lighting concept to Robert Wilson with Mikhail Baryshnikov. The set is beautiful in its starkness and accented with flashes of primary colors. Wearing a black tuxedo with his face in clown white makeup, we see Nijinsky in a doorway seated in a white chair while he repeats the words “I understand War. I have fought with my mother-in-law”. We see him walking in silhouette while life-size puppets mimic his movements. He hangs upside down in that same chair debating with himself whether he is God or Nijinsky. He prances through a pop art-like set of large white daisies and a cartoon child pulling a large bird that looks like it came directly out of a book by Dr. Seuss. He moves through this comic book set while speaking of his sexual exploits with “tarts” in Paris.

One of the highlights of Letter To a Man was the scene that took place in the asylum. The set was mostly gray with Nijinsky first looking out a very tall window and standing on a long black bench. This scene very much reminded me of the Robert Wilson of the 1970s, with Nijinsky slowly walking backwards as we listened to his thoughts on God, war and death.

Baryshnikov is brilliant in this production of Letter To A Man. Through his facial expressions and stylized dancing, he takes us through the inner torments of Nijinsky. He has successfully transitioned from a career in ballet to that of an actor, and at the age of 68 still moves like a graceful gazelle. Age has grounded him, but not silenced his talents as a dancer. The standing ovation he received was well deserved, and I was among those who stood up for him. I, however, was standing to honor his performance alone. I was not standing in response to the overall production which lacked continuity. It was a series of limited investigations into the mind of a trouble genius. It is a very interesting production about an iconic artist that simply misses its mark.

Letter To A Man was based on the Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky with text by Christian Dumais-Lvowski; music by Hal Willner; costumes by Jacques Reynaud and a brilliant lighting design by A. J. Weissbard.