The subject of Vaslav Nijinsky’s diary first came up in 2013 during a rehearsal for “The Old Woman” by Daniil Kharms, directed by Robert Wilson and starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe. Wilson was telling Baryshnikov of his admiration for the journal kept by the legendary Russian dancer (1889-1950) in which he described in chilling detail his mind’s gradual descent into schizophrenia.
“We talked about it more and more and I asked him whether he had considered putting this diary on stage in some form, when he said, ‘If you’re interested, let’s do it,’” Baryshnikov says over the phone from Zurich. I catch the exhaustion in his voice, though it’s hardly surprising considering that he spends almost every night under Wilson’s notoriously demanding direction grappling with Nijinsky’s troubled mind in the performance “Letter to a Man,” which is coming to Athens as part of the Greek Festival on July 10 to 13.
Apart from a study on madness, the production also depicts an encounter between two iconic figures of dance at opposite ends of the 20th century, in different roles.
“It’s a very fragile, sincere, raw document about a troubled man who happened to be an artist and happened to be a dancer, choreographer and actor, but most of all was a humble person and devoted in his beliefs and his relationship to God, and at the same time working on his art to the very end, even in a troubled state mentally,” says Baryshnikov.
The man in the title is impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who was Nijinsky’s lover for many years. After the relationship fell apart, the dancer disavowed his former mentor and never mentioned him by name in his book.
“There is kind of sociopolitical message in my view. Bob doesn’t do anything just for the sake of it; there’s always something,” says Baryshnikov. “It’s a tribute to the art and the artist. When you are in, you are in for the rest of your life. No matter how troubled or how successful you are, you belong to that. Art is not a profession, it’s a disease. You are full and whole until the end of your life… but it becomes like a civil duty, you can’t get away from it.”
Is that how he feels about his art?
“I’m afraid to get bored. That is the best way to make a fool out of myself and that’s what keeps me alive,” he responds, laughing.
Nijinsky was 20 years old – and under the strict eye of Diaghilev – when he took Paris by storm with the Ballets Russes in 1909, awing the public with his simple explanation of his gravity-defying leaps: “You have just to go up and then pause a little.”
The West was in the thrall of the young dancer yet scandalized by his choreography of Debussy’s “L’Apres-midi d’un Faun” in 1912 and his performance of “Le Sacre du Printemps” the following year.
A tour in 1913 of South America marked the beginning of the end for Nijinsky’s relationship with Diaghilev as the superstitious impresario did not want to make the long sea voyage. The dancer returned to Europe married to a wealthy Hungarian aristocrat and fan – a groupie in today’s terms – prompting Diaghilev to dismiss him from the Ballets Russes.
Nijinsky was living in Switzerland with Romola and their young daughter when his mental illness began making an appearance before the end of World War I. He spent the next 30 years of his life in and out of hospitals and asylums.
On the other end of the telephone line I listen to Baryshnikov’s Russian lilt, which hasn’t changed despite four decades in America. He discovered Nijinsky when he was around 13 or 14 years old, studying dance in his native Latvia, then a part of the Soviet Union.
“Misha” was around the same age as Nijinsky when he joined the Mariinsky and, again, like Nijinsky, left Russia (in 1974) never to return. But that’s where the similarities end, he stresses.
Baryshnikov went on to a stellar career that was completely different to that of Nijinsky, which is why, he says, he felt uncomfortable accepting any of the numerous propositions he received – including from Ingmar Bergman – to play Nijinsky in the past.
“There were ideas of a television film, a Hollywood film or a play that was actually an idea to portray the life of Nijinsky, but I’m a different person in many aspects,” says Baryshnikov. “What unites us is that we went to the same school, many years apart, and left Russia and never came back. Probably that’s the only thing which is similar and I wasn’t sure I was right for that kind of role.”
Baryshnikov talks about Nijinsky’s talent and training, his “phenomenal” physical condition, but also his visionary choreographies, which pushed the boundaries of dance and form at a time when the ballet was regarded as the exclusive domain of women.
“He probably didn’t know that this was his talent. He studied the art and listened to the people around him, but he trusted his heart and vision. He didn’t think, ‘Look, I’ll push the art ahead.’ I don’t think he had such extraordinary knowledge about art per se; he was busy dancing. He wasn’t a scholar; he was an art practitioner,” says Baryshnikov.
I ask him if he believes there are limitations in art.
“I don’t think art has any limitations or any measure on whether it’s a great art or if it doesn’t work. It’s critics and the audience who decide the limits. But for the creator, for the person who works in art, it’s infinity that’s the measure of achievement,” he answers.
Surely there are physical limitations, I insist.
“It depends,” he says, citing different forms of dance theater where dancers remain active until old age, such as noh, butoh and kabuki, and dancers such as Maya Plisetskaya and Natalia Makarova, who performed well into their 50s. “if you are in good physical shape, why not?” he says.
Baryshnikov will be turning 70 in two years and says he feels “pretty comfortable.”
“I accept roles which I am 100 percent sure I can attack and I don’t gamble in that sense. I wouldn’t take any project I can’t deliver in my view, and especially working with people like Bob Wilson or Alvis Hermanis,” he says referring to the Latvian director with whom Baryshnikov is doing another one-man show based on the poems of Russian Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky, one of his first acquaintances in the US.
To tackle “Letter to a Man,” Baryshnikov did extensive research on Nijinsky and had already been acquainted with the late dancer’s wife Romola and daughters Kyra and Tamara. The latter, in fact, went to Los Angeles for the performance despite being 90 years old. Trying to balance between sanity and madness, Nijinsky also committed some of his deepest fears to his diary. What is Baryshnikov’s greatest fear?
“To lose my mind. To end up in a vegetative state. If one would know ahead of time, I don’t know if it would be a big help but it’s a troublesome thought. Don’t you think?”
“Letter to a Man” will be staged at the Onassis Cultural Center (107 Syngrou, tel 210.900.5800) on July 10-13 as part of the Greek Festival (www.greekfestival.gr), in a co-production with the Baryshnikov Arts Center, Change Performing Arts and the Attiki Cultural Society.