"I understand war because I fought with my mother-in-law."

The initial spontaneous laughter quickly faded in the near-sold out auditorium at Zellerbach Hall (Cal performances) and jointly, we entered into the internal landscapes of an altered mind: the mind of one of the greats, Vaslav Nijinsky. Dancer and choreographer with Les Ballets Russes under mentor and director Serge Diaghilev, Nijinsky's career contributed to the introduction of modernism to ballet. He portrayed characters like the Harlequin in Carnaval and perhaps most famously The Spirit of the Rose in Le Spectre de La Rose. After ten years of travelling the world, Nijinsky retired from the stage, and behind closed doors in Switzerland he began his descent into schizophrenia. Letter to a Man is a surrealist recount of one man’s downward spiral as captured in meticulous detail in Nijinsky’s diary. Letter to a Man presents us with a 'ballet as a micro-biography'.

Mikhail Baryshnikov in <i>Letter to a Man</i> © Lucy Jansch | 2015
Mikhail Baryshnikov in Letter to a Man
© Lucy Jansch | 2015
The puppeteers holding these strings of thought strung together are director Robert Wilson and dramaturg Darryl Pinckney. Another great, 68 year-old Mikhail Baryshnikov, holds the stage for 70 minutes. The thoughts we hear range from lucid to nonsensical, humorous to dark, threatening and saddening. Appearing pierrot-like in a sharp black suit and white gloves (costume design by Jacques Reynaud and makeup by Claudia Bastia), in the spotlight, Baryshnikov embodies a man grappling with internal horrors while witnessing the world at war outside of his doors. Aided by none other than Judson Church innovator Lucinda Childs who is credited as “collaborator to movement and text,” lines and movement merge at strategic points throughout the piece. “I feel the suffocation of the earth,” he says. Baryshnikov appears as a shadow figure in front of a forest corridor, his arms elongated by tree branches, cutting through the air like scythes. In one scene we hear gunshots juxtaposing 1920s flapper music, Baryshnikov’s arms and hands at times stiff as a board, pointing straight out while he pivots his body in precise direction changes. On the floor lies a soldier’s body, face down. “They (the soldiers) are stupid because they have lost feeling,” he says, his voice chillingly monotonous. Baryshnikov’s hands, clad in white gloves are exquisitely expressive. At times held behind his back as if fully aware of the power of invisibility, of secrets kept or open like a fan: like a pantomime, he uses them like a textmarker, framing the beginning and end, underlining shock, highlighting shame…

In another scene, the scrim behind Baryshnikov was flooded in blood red. Repetition beats my ears, lines are repeated over and over again. In Russian, in English. Different voices...Lines appear, layering on top of one another until we see only black, then start over.

Mikhail Baryshnikov © Lucy Jansch | 2015
Mikhail Baryshnikov
© Lucy Jansch | 2015
One sees an eye, a circle, then a sea of black. I descend into my chair, watching Baryshnikov's solo, moving across the stage as if himself a puppet on strings that send shockwaves to his limbs, his face struck, eyebrows lifted almost to the hairline.

“You’re not my king. I am your king,” he proclaims in the last scene, perhaps directing these words at Diaghilev? Soon thereafter, the red curtain closes slowly, like a camera zooming out from this manic microcosm. The main curtain at Zellerbach remained opened and people were quick to jump to their feet, yet equally as quick to file out of the auditorium after only a few short curtain calls.

Letter to a Man is a personal, intricate interpretation of one man’s diary delivered by an artist who looks back at a lifetime of dance...Of being madly in love with art and the lifestyle it demands of its most dedicated devotees.