Barysh­nikov steps into Ni­jin­sky’s trou­bled mind

Famed Rus­sian-Amer­i­can dancer por­trays world’s great­est bal­let per­former dur­ing his strug­gle with schizophre­nia in Robert Wil­son show

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY SAKIS IOANNIDIS

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.

Pause, midair

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.

Cross­ing paths

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, sin­cere, raw doc­u­ment about a trou­bled man who hap­pened to be an artist and hap­pened to be a dancer, chore­og­ra­pher and ac­tor,’ says Mikhail Barysh­nikov of Robert Wil­son’s ‘Letter to a Man,’ based on the di­ary of Vaslav Ni­jin­sky. 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?”

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