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Mikhail Baryshnikov descends into a dark place in his one-man show

by Alex Cohen | Take Two®

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Mikhail Baryshnikov in Letter to a Man. Screenshot from Letter to a Man teaser via YouTube

He was often called the greatest male dancer of the 20th century. Vaslav Nijinsky was a Russian ballet star and choreographer of Polish descent, celebrated around the world for his gravity-defying leaps and his ability to dance on pointe.

In 1909, Nijinsky joined the Ballet Russes, a company started by a man named Sergie Diaghilev. For a while, he and Nijinsky were also lovers.

But eventually, Nijinsky married a woman and started a family. His spurned mentor dismissed him from the dance company. Vaslav Nijinsky's career foundered, he fell into despair and was later diagnosed with schizophrenia.

After being committed to an asylum in 1919 he chronicled his descent into madness in a diary. Mikhail Baryshnikov, another Russian dancer regarded as one of the greats of his time, detailed the significance of the diary to Alex Cohen:

"Luckily for us, he had this urgency to put his feelings in writing, which is really very unusual for schizophrenics...and yet in six weeks he wrote this remarkable diary which later on millions of people read with great interest."

Baryshnikov had been approached more than a dozen times to take on the part of Nijisnky and he had always declined...until now.

He's performing in a one-man show directed by Robert Wilson titled "Letter to a Man".

Letter to a Man teaser

This weekend it comes to town at UCLA's Royce Hall, which is where Mikhail Baryshnikov explained the appeal of this particular portrayal of an artist struggling with madness:

"Bob decided to use certain elements of this diary. His relationship with God of course, his pacifism, it's sort of like manifest of an artist. His relationship with a family, fatherhood, war, death. This means we are trying to in this piece sort of recover his voice, a voice that's definitely troubled. Some of the passages are kind of incoherent and meditative and some of them really  evoke great Russian writers; Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy.

The self-examination, the self-doubt, longing, struggles, that's what actually Bob Wilson's forte because he's always trying to engage the audience no matter how to difficult to understand certain things. He puts the responsibility on the audience's shoulders to invest emotionally in themselves into the text and try to find their own interpretation of it and some similarities..."

Baryshnikov has performed the show abroad and in New York and San Francisco but this the first time he's performed in the country post-election. He shared his anxieties over last week's outcome in the presidential election:

"I was born in the late '40s under Joseph Stalin and lived through the whole '50s, '60s, '70s and run away from Leonid Brezhnev and found the most extraordinary place to be and be a part of...the United States. And now, I am kind of descending in that very dark place."

For more information on "Letter to a Man" click here.

To hear the full interview, click the blue play button above.

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