Letter to a Man

Letter to a Man is the third collaboration between two icons from the world of performing arts – Robert Wilson and Mikhail Baryshnikov. I had the privilege to enjoy all three, in three different corners of the world.

Video Portraits came first in 2013; hosted by Onassis Cultural Centre in Athens Greece, it was an audiovisual feat unlike anything we’d seen before – in that part of the world, at least. A few months later and some three thousand kilometres north of Greece The Old Woman came to town, with William Dafoe joining the party in deSingel, Antwerp’s centre of contemporary arts. And, finally, three years later, a performance at the source, with Letter to a Man marking our initiation to the theatre world of New York at BAM, Brooklyn’s leading performing arts venue. We didn’t know it then but BAM would become a regular ”hangout” where we would enjoy many an entertaining weekend night out.

Letter to a Man is based on autobiographical texts by Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950), with extracts from his diaries, written in less than six weeks in 1919 when Nijinsky was already succumbing to madness and trying to record and understand what was happening to him.

In Robert Wilson’s play, each passage is repeated many times in English and in Russian by Mikhail Baryshnikov alone on the set, assisted only by Wilson’s masterfully minimalist – yet grandiose – mise-en-scène on which light, sound, props, movement and text are all of equal importance; and staged to perfection by the Director himself.

Now, I will readily admit I had never been a great fan of Baryshnikov, tilting toward the ethereal grand jeters of the likes of Nureyev rather than the solid, precise movements of Mikhail. Despite his extraordinary leaps, which apparently were higher than Rudolf’s, Baryshnikov always gave me the impression that he was somehow heavier, earthbound.  And I have to take Nijinsky’s brilliance as an establish fact, since none of his performances were ever recorded.

But watching Baryshnikov alone on the stage channelling a lifetime’s worth of earthbound precision, mastering choreography and pantomime, being almost seventy years old and unstoppable, the least I can do is concede admiration. For Baryshnikov rendered Nijinsky’s descent to insanity with the brio and gentleness, compassion and deep understanding, as only another great dancer could.

This is how it began:

”I understand war because I fought with my mother-in-law,” he repeats several times while confined to a straitjacket.

”I am a beast, a predator. I will practice masturbation and spiritualism. I will eat everyone I can get hold of. I will stop at nothing.”

”I am God’s plan, and not the Antichrist’s. I am not the Antichrist. I am Christ.”

Letter to a Man, BAM, October 2016.

It will run in Barcelona on 29 June – 02 July 2017. Details for this and other productions can be found on Robert Wilson’s website.

Photo credits: all, except the last two, photos are by Lucie Jansch.

October 23rd, 2016

Young Frankenstein

What a pleasure to have discovered Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974) forty-plus years after its release (forty-three to be precise)…! Presented by the man himself, no less.

A live introduction, broadcast from the 20th century Fox studios to movie theaters, with Mel Brooks paying tribute to the film’s late star Gene Wilder who had passed away just two months before. But also letting the audience in on a few ”secrets” like how he discovered the original laboratory equipment used in the 1931 film Frankenstein stored in the garage of the man who created it, Kenneth Strickfaden. As it happened, it was in perfect working condition – they didn’t even have to remove the dust. It went without saying that Mr. Brooks would use it again in Young Frankenstein…

AMC Empire 25

October 18th, 2016

Haunted

The New York Cancer Hospital founded in 1884, was designed by architect Charles Coolidge Haight to resemble a French chateau. When I first saw it, unaware of its function or background, I thought of an academic institution or a public administration building – certainly not a hospital!

But a hospital it was and the very first one to treat cancer in the United States, at that. Although treatment is rather a euphemism since there was no cure for cancer at the time. In reality, patients came here to ease the pain, seeking comfort in morphine and champagne. Reportedly the hospital spent more on alcoholic beverages than medical supplies.

Because of the high mortality rate among patients, its reputation was gradually tarnished to the point that it became known as ”the Bastille”, a place to be feared and avoided. Along came financial troubles, followed by a change of name (under which it thrived) and a relocation to the East Side in 1995.

With the cancer hospital relocated, the ”Bastille” became a nursing home, mistreated and abused its elderly patients, got involved in fraud cases, and was finally closed down in a state of neglect and disrepair, in 1974. That’s probably when the ghosts took over; for it goes without saying that the ”Bastille” a.k.a the ”Castle” is reputedly haunted. With so much suffering and darkness, how could it not be?

Unbelievably, it survived demolition. After decades of neglect it was redeveloped in the noughties and, by 2005, turned into – take a guess – luxury condominiums. In case you’re curious, take a look inside one of the apartments here.

I wonder what the ghosts have to say about this.

455 Central Park West

Octobrrrrr 16th, 2016

Moonlight Sonata

Let me come with you. What a moon there is tonight!
The moon is kind – it won’t show
that my hair turned white. The moon
will turn my hair to gold again. You wouldn’t understand.
Let me come with you.

When there’s a moon the shadows in the house grow larger,
invisible hands draw the curtains,
a ghostly finger writes forgotten words in the dust
on the piano – I don’t want to hear them. Hush.

Verses long forgotten come to mind. From the poem by Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990), Η σονάτα του σεληνόφωτος / Moonlight sonata.

As always in poetry, nuance is lost in translation. But it is this or none at all.

October 16th, 2016

Squeezed

~ tightly. Riding the New York City subway during rush hour feels like…

Back on the surface, this bulbous structure attracted much criticism when it was erected in 1902. Built by Philip Braender, a German-born developer-cum-automobile tyre manufacturer, and designed by architect Frederick C. Browne in a mix style with French Renaissance, Spanish and Baroque influences, the Braender should have really stood out. Instead, it was criticised for being one of the same, similar to a dozen other buildings in the area.

”One of these things makes you yawn. A mile of them gets on your nerves”, wrote the critic Montgomery Shuyler in The Architectural Record, in January 1902.

The difference a century and a major renovation makes! Who’s yawning now Mr. Shuyler?

There is an interesting article from 2006, by Christopher Gray in The New York Times about the Braender and one of its famous residents, Mrs. Winifred Sackville Stoner, which you can read here.

418, Central Park West

October 16th, 2016

279 Central Park West

The one on the right. Designed by Costas Kondylis, one of the most prolific architects in New York. Over the years, Mr Kondylis has helped shape the cityscape by designing numerous well-known buildings. He has worked closely (moral sensitivity alert!) with the Trump Organization – Trump World Tower in the UN Plaza is his design (end alert). He became known for his preference in no-frill ”boring” structures earning the trust of the city’s developers for getting the job done i.e. delivering on time and within budget.

There is nothing boring about 279 CPW. Looking at the tiered upper floors with penthouse apartments and large wrap terraces, I wouldn’t mind calling one of them home. 

W88th St.

Central Park West

October 16th, 2016

Turning Page

Proud to have been present, among representatives of the entire world, at the historic moment when the United Nations General Assembly appointed by acclamation the former Prime Minister of Portugal, António Guterres, as the next United Nations Secretary-General, succeeding Ban Ki-moon when he stepped down on 31 December 2016.

An emotional moment for everyone present including Mr. Guterres himself, who addressed the General Assembly in English, French and Portuguese.

‘I have faith in the United Nations because I believe in the universal values it stands for: peace, justice, human dignity, tolerance and solidarity. Based on these values, I believe that diversity in all its forms is a tremendous asset, and not a threat; that in societies that are more and more multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious, diversity can bring us together, not drive us apart.

An extract from Mr. Guterres’ speech which I found particularly resonating.

António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations

October 13th, 2016