Lyubov Andreyeva as Camille and Oleg Gayshev as Rodin.  Photo © Souheil Michael Khoury

Lyubov Andreyeva as Camille and Oleg Gayshev as Rodin.
Photo © Souheil Michael Khoury

London Coliseum, London, UK; April 15, 2014

Charlotte Kasner

When Boris Eifman came to London and presented Olga Spessitseva’s sad story in “Red Giselle”, his Company were minor players on the Russian scene. It was founded in 1977 – glory days for Russian ballet. Modern dance, long accepted and feted in the rest of Europe, did not find favour in that most cultural of cities St Petersburg until comparatively recently.

“Red Giselle” may have knocked London for six, but none of his productions have had quite the same impact – until now. “Rodin is simply the perfect synthesis of art forms: lighting, costumes, drama, music and dance meld to tell the heart-rendingly tragic tale of Auguste Rodin and his mistress Camille Claudel. It is such a good subject for dance and drama that it seems incredible that no one has thought of it before.

Gleb Filshtinschky and Boris Eifman have collaborated to create stunning beams and pools of light. Blues, whites and greens bathe and strobe the stage. Olga Shaishmelashvili provides costumes that suggest period without looking incongruous and that allow the dancers full freedom of movement.

The music, a mix of well-known impressionist and late-romantic works from Saint-Saens, Ravel, Debussy, Massenet and Satie to name but a few, should be a train smash but in fact work to place the work firmly in period. The familiarity of favourite pieces in unfamiliar settings sharpens the drama and provides moments for humour, especially the overture from “Carnival of the Animals” with the two models taking the theme of the asses. Later, the positioning of the asses’ theme (Personages with Long Ears) however, illustrates Claudel’s burgeoning insanity in a poignant, short, tortured solo. It will never sound quite so purely comical again.

Eifman Ballet in 'Rodin'.  Photo © Souheil Michael Khoury

Eifman Ballet in ‘Rodin’.
Photo © Souheil Michael Khoury

The greatest triumph of the choreography is in the way that Eifman creates an evocation of sculpture. Although there is never a moment when the dance fails to compel, it is the tortured plastique that evokes the sculptured form that stuns. Oleg Gabyshev as Rodin is an immensely powerful performer in a company full of virtuosi. He creates the sense that his sculpture is wrenched viscerally from his vitals. Dancers are posed on a tilted, rotating plate or writhe agonisingly on an art nouveau-inspired frame only to freeze in a gravity-defying amalgam of beauty. They seem to have limbs of plasticine that itself appears to be being pulled and contorted by Rodin to reach his final effect.

The scene where Claudel and Rodin collaborate to create a sculpture, pulling, shaping and posing the dancers then finally draping a long cloth carefully over extended limbs and round torsos, is so passionate and evocative that it may as well be a grand pas de deux. Poor Claudel’s downfall is swift and lonely by comparison, whilst Rodin’s star continues in the ascendant. She destroyed most of her works whilst he, after a brief lull following his death, continues to this day to be one of the most widely recognised loved sculptors.

The worlds of the demi-monde and the Belle Epoque crunch and slide against each other like tectonic plates, at one point bursting into a delicious cancan, all frothy petticoats and squealing dancers, reminding one that artists were never quite respectable however beloved by those who can pay. Towards the end, the music is interspersed with a sound effect that at first seems like the slamming of a huge door and then transmogrifies into frenzied hammering as Rodin ploughs on, Claudel discarded, and sculpture his main and lasting obsession.

The pace varies continually and dancing is so slick and co-ordinated that all thoughts of technique melt away to reveal the drama. The Company are deeply committed and focused, every role, from each dancer in the press pack that fete Rodin’s exhibitions, to the soloists. They combine to suck the audience into the tragic tale and leave it wanting more. The abrupt ending is like a slap in the face, Rodin high upstage, furiously sculpting, bathed in light while the rest of the stage fades into darkness.

“Rodin” is dance, drama and music at its very best. In this Year of Russian Culture, how fortunate we are to be able to see works of such high calibre and to share with the many Russians present a real treasure of the international cultural scene.