Mikhail Baryshnikov and Bob Wilson have been in Milan rehearsing their new project: Letter to a Man, inspired by the diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky,
The diaries were written in six months in 1919 – says Baryshnikov – at the height of his breakdown… he wasn't even thirty. It is a document of suffering from an immense artist. Henry Miller called it the most exciting and honest book he'd ever read.
Nijinsky was unique: in his quest for perfection; his exotic lines; for his strong muscularity which permitted him to dance Le Spectre de la rose that requires exceptional physical strength. I speak with authority because I had to perform it with Margot. And I must say, I've never even dared to dance his Faune. I didn't think I was suitable and I wouldn't have known where to begin. However, exactly fifty years ago, during my first school performance, I played Petrushka.
Letter to a Man is no ballet and Baryshnikov will not be wearing any Nijinsky costumes.
Imagine a bent knee which stretches open or a flower that closes… that's how I've conceived this work,
Wilson told Chiara Mariani for the Corriere della Sera's Sette magazine.
Baryshnikov feels a strong affinity with Nijinsky: fellow Russians, fellow dancers, and he knew his wife too.
I have danced almost all his roles, classical and non-classical, and I've passed a lot of time with Romola his wife, I even travelled with her. Although it is impossible to enter someone's mind, she was the one who knew him best and it is with her that I've had the most profound discussions about him.
She has been greatly criticised, but just for the fact that she remained with such a disturbed man right to the end deserves our respect. For Nijinsky she was certainly his salvation and I think she deserves a medal. Letter to a Man begins in 1945 when he found himself in her house in Budapest because of the war.
Bob Wilson's works always sound more complex, and confusing, when described than when experienced. Here's his summing up of Letter to a Man:
The piece will be in three parts, each divided into three acts: each part will start with A, Portrait; then B, a Still Life, with a wider vision; then C, Landscape. Each part is introduced by a brief prologue and then slowly, as we continue and the core is revealed, the outlook widens.
I'm a visual artist and this is how I see it; I can't work unless I know the space in which I am to work. So every similar act, A for example, will correspond to a visual and textual level.
He's keen to underline that the piece is a collaboration, though Baryshnikov says that it's Wilson who “holds the whip”.
Mikhail is a one man show and so we need to find the right way to express the various personalities that live in one body. One plus one doesn't always equal two, sometimes two come together as one.
Mikhail is perfect for this: he can be neoclassical, tragic, and romantic, he can be upfront or formal… he's like a prism. He is a great performer capable of capturing the attention of an audience and drawing it into his world.
This is a work full of passion, poetic and enthralling, because in every one of us you can find various personalities.
Letter to a Man has been commissioned by Festival dei 2 mondi and the Crt Milano and will open on 8 July 2015 at the Teatro Caio Melisso in Spoleto and run until 12 July and at the Teatro dell'Arte in Milan from 11 – 20 September.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.