There are a few words a journalist never wants to hear at the start of an interview: “I have only five minutes.” Especially if the person delivering them is renowned theater director and artist Robert Wilson.
Separated by an ocean during a call from the Bay Area to a hotel in Germany, technological difficulties turned a promised thirty minutes into a paltry handful. That’s not nearly enough to cover Wilson’s roughly fifty-year-long career of ground-breaking theatrical works with stunning visual sweep and imaginative staging. Most recently, his Letter to a Man features dancer and actor Mikhail Baryshnikov — and will come to Zellerbach Hall via Cal Performances November 10–13.
Good fortune shone, however, when the phrase became Wilson’s nonliteral mantra, issued repeatedly, and five minutes stretched into twenty. Luckily, as a minimalist who eschews reviews that blither-blather, Wilson can efficiently pack a twenty-minute chat with rich content.
A native of the large landscape state of Texas, it’s somehow fitting that Wilson, 75, would become a person of vast ambition and talent. His signature works stretch across theater to include operas, paintings, sculpture, choreography, videos, prop design, outdoor art parks, and more. His signature productions are expansive in scale and time, such as his masterpiece 1976 five-hour opera, Einstein on the Beach, a collaboration with composer Philip Glass and choreographer Lucinda Childs. Cal Performances presented the episodic telling of the life of Einstein in 2012, indelibly imprinting the most unforgettable, visual experience of this writer’s lifetime so far.
“Often people write about my work and try to imply meanings that are in their mind instead of describing what’s in front of them,” said Wilson. “Of the thousands of articles written, maybe two or three writers actually see the work. With most reviewers, we have no idea of what happened on the stage because they were writing about what’s inside their head.” He said he admires the writing of the late Edwin Denby, who died in 1983 and whose criticism included admirably descriptive language, but not imagined inferences.
Ironically, events onstage during Letter to a Man are interpretations and physical metaphors representing what was inside the head of Polish-Russian dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. The seventy-minute production is based on the legendary dancer’s diaries, written during a six-week period in 1919 when he recorded his descent into schizophrenia in rambling words and drawings on paper. Institutionalized for years, Nijinsky never returned to life in the public eye and died in 1950. His wife, Romola de Pulszky, published a redacted version of the diaries in 1936. As American author Henry Miller wrote about the diaries: “…had he not gone to the asylum we would have had in Nijinsky a writer equal to the dancer.”
In a separate interview, Baryshnikov said that Letter to a Man is not a linear narrative about a man losing his mind, but a theatrical depiction of a human being whose mental landscape is undergoing change.
For Wilson, working with Baryshnikov is an excellent opportunity for rigorous collaboration. Trained at the Kirov Ballet, the now 67-year-old dancer and actor famously defected to Canada in 1974 and became an instant, international star while performing with New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and numerous other dance companies. Bridging into Broadway, film, television, theater, directing, and multi-genre collaborations, Baryshnikov’s career is a wide channel similar to Wilson’s. They have collaborated previously on a video portrait of Saint Sebastian and Daniil Kharms’ The Old Woman, featuring Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe.
“Misha always says he’s not a choreographer, but we know each other so well that I can indicate something and he can take it, fill it out. He’s highly professional because of his training,” said Wilson. “You can see one-thousand girls doing Giselle. Why is it that one stands out? Misha understands what that is and how to do it.”
Sonic texture plays a significant role in Letter to a Man. Wilson, Baryshnikov, and Childs recorded the script (it’s technically a script but they refer to it as text) by Christian Dumais-Lvowski. Spoken in English and Russian, the soundscape includes music by Hal Willner and an eclectic mix: Tom Waits, Bessie Smith, Arvo Pärt and others. “I like the sound of Lucinda’s voice,” said Wilson. “It’s a color I like listening to.” Wilson said it takes twenty to thirty performances for an actor to completely discover a character. “My work is formal but it’s only after repeating and repeating it that a performer finds a role,” he said. “Performing one of my works is finding it’s freedom.” Even then, one task of early rehearsals — examining impromptu moments to discover the technical mechanisms behind the spontaneity — continues. Performing in theaters of variable size, Wilson said, “Even if you do movement exactly the same as before, it’s different. A small movement must fill the space in a very big theater, but no, I don’t tell the actor to make it larger. It’s the weight that gives movement its impact.”
With that, Wilson departed, his five-word mantra having morphed into: “I must get to rehearsal.”