sábado, 30 de abril de 2016


After being asked more than 15 times over the years to play the role of Diaghilev’s provocative virtuoso, the Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov has finally taken a leap of faith. So what persuaded him to do it?

Letter to a Man at the Spoleto festival. Photograph: Lucie Jansch

Sarah Crompton

 ‘There is not one minute of his dancing ever recorded. He lives through his roles. What a lucky guy. It adds to the mystery.” Mikhail Baryshnikov, the greatest male dancer of his generation, is talking about the greatest male dancer of all time,Vaslav Nijinsky.
The legend of Nijinsky has permeated ballet ever since Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes arrived in Paris in 1909. When asked if it was difficult to seemingly hang in the air when jumping, he replied: ‘No! No! Not difficult. You have just to go up and then pause a little up there.” Already a prodigy in St Petersburg, the dancer was a sensation in the west, praised not only for his leap, but also for his finesse – the curve of his arm, the angle of his head, his musicality – and the way he was able to melt his own personality into whatever part he was playing.
His performances revivified ballet and when he turned his attention to choreography, he revolutionised the possibilities of what dance could do. HisL’Après-midi d’un Faune caused a scandal when it opened in 1912; the following year Le Sacré du Printemps precipitated a riot. His thinking was so ahead of its time, audiences were simply not ready for what they saw. He was the most celebrated male dancer in the world, a name on the lips of all cultured people.
But then events took an unpredictable turn. Suffering from a morbid fear of the sea, Diaghilev decided against taking a long voyage to South America with Nijinsky, who was his lover and protege, and the company. During the journey, Nijinsky became engaged to Romola de Pulszky, a rich Hungarian aristocrat who had pursued him with the aim of finding fame. They did not share a common language, but, lonely and bored, he felt she understood him. Their subsequent marriage led to his traumatic split from Diaghilev.
By 1917, Nijinsky was living in St Moritz, with Romola and their three-year-old daughter, Kyra, trapped by the first world war and out of work. But by the time of the armistice, he had begun to suffer from mental illness and between 19 January 1919 – the day he danced in public for the last time – and 4 March that year, he recorded his thoughts in a diary. It has since been described by dance critic Joan Acocella as “the only sustained, on-the-spot (not retrospective) written account, by a major artist, of the experience of entering psychosis”.
Recently published in unexpurgated form, the diary now forms the basis of Letter to a Man, a play starring Baryshnikov and directed by Robert Wilson that opened at the Spoleto festival on 8 July. “This is not about Nijinsky, per se,” Baryshnikov explains. “It is about this extraordinary book, miraculously written in six months. It is about a troubled man and his relationship with his art, with God, with family, with moral issues. We have avoided recreating anything. There is not one gesture. It is not about this … ” He strikes a pose, flexing his arms suddenly into a gracefully balletic shape. “It is a strange parallel story about the voice of this person, not his physicality.”
We are talking in a 16th-century palazzo in the Italian hilltop town. Outside, the sun blazes down; inside, it is cool, a timeless serenity seems to surround us. Quiet and intense, but with a gurgling laugh that punctuates his sentences, Baryshnikov looks tired. He has been devoting up to 12 hours each day to rehearsing this one-man show, and is enjoying himself. “I feel confident in Bob’s work because it is so beautifully over the top. He pushes you into a corner and really digs into you and makes you do things on stage that you never thought you would dare to do.”
It is a sign of Baryshnikov’s confidence in his director that he has agreed to play Nijinsky, a role that has been suggested to him “at least 15 times” in his life and which he had always turned it down. The most intriguing previous proposition came from the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, who also wanted to dramatise the diary. “Makes sense don’t you think? You can see those great closeups,” he says. “It was a fascinating few days of possibility.” But Herbert Ross’s Nijinsky, starring Alan Bates as Diaghilev, was in pre-production at the same time, and the Bergman prospect vanished. “I probably would not have been a good enough actor for it really to work,” he adds. “It would have been someone with serious experience in cinema.”
Baryshnikov first encountered the story of Nijinsky when he was studying at St Petersburg’s Vaganova School, in what was then Leningrad. It was where Nijinsky (and Nureyev) trained, and his costume for Le Spectre de la Rose, covered in faded petals, was on display in a glass case. “Yet at the same time in the 1960s and 70s, the legend of Nijinsky and of the Ballets Russes was kept quiet because it was politically tainted. Diaghilev took all the best dancers and they never came back – and he opened up ideas.”
For his first school performance Baryshnikov danced a scene from Petrushka, about a puppet destroyed by love, a part created by Fokine for Nijinsky. Les Sylphides and Giselle, ballets loved by Nijinsky, have been among Baryshnikov’s favourites, too, and he has performed as the soaring spirit of the rose in Spectre. “When you perform something created by Nijinsky, you say, ‘This guy could dance that’s for sure.’ The physical amplitude is very demanding and the heartbeat really goes up. He obviously had an extraordinarily gifted body that was physically and beautifully trained. Then there is the astonishing range of his roles and the discovery of him as a choreographer. L’Après-midi d’un Faune alone is evidence of genius, evidence of a man of prodigious talent and vision.”

Nijinsky in L’Après-midi d’un Faune in Paris, 1912. Photograph: Apic/Getty Images

This praise comes from a man whom the critic Clive Barnes once described as “the most perfect dancer I have ever seen”. But the stories of Baryshnikov and Nijinsky are very different. “We both came from the provinces, trained in the school, joined the Mariinsky, left and never came back,” Baryshnikov laughs as he finishes his concise summary. “But that is the only thing that unites the great Nijinsky and me. For the rest we went in different directions with different intentions.”
Baryshnikov’s own career, since his defection in 1974, has taken him everywhere he could possibly have imagined – and some places he had never dreamed of. He danced all over the world, ran American Ballet Theatre, danced for George Balanchineat New York City Ballet, and found worldwide fame as one of Carrie Bradshaw’s lovers in Sex and the City. When his classical career was ending, he set up the White Oak Dance Project with the choreographer Mark Morris and developed some of the freshest works in the contemporary repertoire. In 2005, he founded the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York which continues to promote new work.
At the age of 67 he shows no signs of slowing down. In the past year, he has unveiled an exhibition of his dance photographs and become an internet star following the launch of his video to advertise a fashion brand with the street dancer Lil Buck. “It was a slow day on the internet when that became a sensation,” he says, looking slightly sheepish. In addition to Letter to a Man, he will star in another solo show, Brodsky/Baryshnikov, based on the poems of his friend Joseph Brodsky and opening in his home city Riga, Latvia, in October. Why does he feel the need to keep going? He draws breath and thinks for a moment. “I guess it is a bit of a panic about age. It is like a snowball. I am taking more to my plate than I should have sometimes, but I couldn’t resist.”
The idea for Letter to a Man – the title comes from a letter Nijinsky wrote to Diaghilev in which he would not even mention the impresario’s name – arose when he was working with Wilson on The Old Woman, an adaptation of a Daniil Kharms short story, two years ago. “I said to him, ‘Well it is now or never because time is creeping on.’ I knew that it would be very physical, to be alone on stage for more than an hour, and I cannot do this at 70 plus.”
What’s so fascinating about the diary is that Nijinsky’s plunge into schizophrenia, and his repetitive incantations of thoughts about God and man, war and peace, life and death, are punctuated by sections that make total sense. “It is illuminated by sanity,” says Baryshnikov. “There are some passages and some pages that are totally coherent and then”, he mimes a body falling, “suddenly there is a crack in the floor. He stumbles mentally. Henry Miller said it was one of the most fascinating documents of the human condition he had ever read.”
The poignancy of the text is heightened by the knowledge that after its completion Nijinsky fell silent, never again communicating in any meaningful way. He died in England, in 1950, with Romola at his side. “Chapeau to her,” says Baryshnikov. “She may have had her own life, but she stayed with him for the rest of his. She could have put him in an asylum and visited him once in two years. But he was always in clean clothes, in good hotels. In this sense you have to forgive her a lot. I think she was a good wife.”
Baryshnikov met Romola on many occasions. She had published the diaries in 1936 in an edited form that revealed her in the best light and with a plea for contributions towards the cost of his care. “She was a grande dame,” he remembers with a smile. “She wanted to keep the legacy of Vaslav floating and people interested.” One of Baryshnikov’s few regrets is that, shortly after he arrived in the west, Romola approached him, bringing along the choreographer Léonide Massine, who had succeeded Nijinsky both in Diaghilev’s affections and as his choreographer.
They wanted Baryshnikov to help them revive Till Eulenspiegel, Nijinsky’s final unfinished piece of choreography. “I was flattered and fascinated by the opportunity but I had just come from Russia and had already made commitments and I couldn’t.” He bites his elbow to show his disappointment. “I wish I could have made time to do it, but you know how it is. You think it is forever.”
Baryshnikov has also met many of the other significant figures in Nijinsky’s life, including Kyra (“a troubled woman”), his sister Bronislava Nijinska (“not a lesser choreographer than him”) and Marie Rambert (“she worshipped him”). All these encounters have enriched his view of Nijinsky. But in the end, he comes back to the inspiration of the diary. “It has such a purity of intent, to be a man and an artist at the same time. Even with the most unhappy and tragic of situations he thought that God would tell him what to do, and how to be right. As for his legacy, it is very simple: he shifted the perspective for everyone.”


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