Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg
New York, New York
June 7, 2019
The Pygmalion Effect
I’ve been mesmerized by Boris Eifman’s recent New York offerings, admiring his highly expressionistic style and the psychological stresses that he paints through movement. Everything is elongated and emphasized in an idiosyncratic panoply of intense action: as I once wrote, he’s the El Greco of choreographers. Described another way, where Sir Antony Tudor examined psychological motivations with a refined, English sensibility, Eifman does the same, but with unabashed Russian passion. His new ballet, The Pygmalion Effect, which premiered in St. Petersburg three months ago, is intellectually intriguing, undeniably clever, and at times visually stunning – and the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg dancers are as exemplary as ever. However, to me The Pygmalion Effect misses the mark established by two of the three Eifman ballets that have been recently performed in New York: Tchaikovsky.Pro et Contra, and Anna Karenina.
The Pygmalion Effect is a comedy, sort of, and to some extent perhaps not to be taken seriously. But I suspect it is intended to be taken seriously – to be more a tragi-comedy than a comedy. Part of the difficulty I have with it is that this tragedy / comedy duality reflects a dual intellectual approach that’s not easy to reconcile into a unified whole. The other part is that the story line is too mundane for its subject and that some of the comedy doesn’t work – though I’ll concede that this observation may be a culture-based prejudice.
Before I discuss details of the dance, a bit of background is essential.
The ancient Greek myth of an artist falling in love with his creation, which has been captured many times in many different permutations over the subsequent millennia, is foundational in The Pygmalion Effect and in its viewers’ minds. The myth was most famously memorialized in Ovid’s narrative poem Metamorphoses: in the story, a sculptor, Pygmalion, carves an ivory statue that is so beautiful and lifelike that he falls in love with it; and, following his entreaties to Venus (Aphrodite), the statue is brought to life. It wasn’t until the 18th Century that the statue’s name became memorialized as Galatea, which means, in Greek, “she who is milk white.” More recently, the story was transformed into a play by George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion, which thereafter was reimagined into a legendary Broadway musical by Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe.
But the notion that a benevolent – or in some cases not so benevolent – creator can breathe life into his or her creation (actually or metaphorically), usually because he falls in love with it (actually or metaphorically), has deep roots, preceding even Greek mythology. Like the need to understand and visualize why things happen or to explain the genesis of human temperaments, the need to dream is as basic as breathing, and probably as old as human life itself. [Rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, I have no first-hand knowledge.] The only point of dreaming impossible dreams (as opposed to fantasies, which are more detached) is that maybe, somehow, the impossible can become real – with the creator’s efforts to channel his or her energies into making the dream a reality, with or without divine help, being grist for artistic expression. And what better way to conjure someone or something to dream about than to create it yourself – although the end result can sometimes have a devastating impact. For every Galatea, there’s a Coppélia. For every Pretty Woman, there’s a Bride of Frankenstein. [One might conclude that even The Sleeping Beauty gets into the act. Pygmalion brings his statue to life with a kiss (actually, two of them); Aurora dreams of her Prince Désiré, and as a sleeping “statue” in her dream, is awakened by a kiss from her created prince. Or the other way around: the prince envisions a sleeping statue that he brings to life with a kiss. But that, like so many other intellectual meanderings, is a thesis for another day.]
Using ballet as an artistic vehicle to examine the forces that lead a creator to fall in love with his creation has considerable merit, and it would be surprising if it hadn’t been done before. And, in fact, it has been done before, by, among others, no less a majestic ballet presence than Marius Petipa, who created Pygmalion, ou La Statue de Chypre, which premiered in St. Petersburg in 1883, and was revived in 1895 featuring Pierina Legnani, one of the greatest ballerinas of her time, and the Mariinsky’s first Prima Ballerina Assoluta. [No, I wasn’t there for that either.] Why I found no record in my cursory research of it being performed thereafter is a bit baffling, given its high profile. Alexei Ratmansky might want to look into it.
But a dance based on the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea – usually expressed as the creation’s impact on its creator – isn’t exactly what Eifman is aiming at here. In fact, his focus, at least in part, is on the reverse – the impact of a Pygmalion on a Galatea. That this is clear only from the dance’s title (and from the program note) rather than from the action on stage is perhaps the reason that the piece comes across as having a split intellectual personality.
“The Pygmalion effect” is a psychological term of art concerning a phenomenon relating, generally, to high expectations yielding high accomplishment. The phrase has its origin in a much criticized psychological study early last century that found that teachers who expected great accomplishment from certain of their students, even if there was no factual basis for it (indeed, even if the “factual basis” was feigned) produced better performances from these students. In a nutshell, it’s self-fulfilling prophecy: you expect it to be this way, and so it becomes – even though, in reality, nothing in the “expectee” has really changed. It was dubbed “the Pygmalion effect” to reflect the impact that the teacher / sculptor has on his student / creation. In a way, it’s the myth turned on its head.
Looked at this way, what Eifman is doing with The Pygmalion Effect is telling the story of Pygmalion and Galatea, or more accurately Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolitle, through the prism of “the Pygmalion effect.” And if all this sounds a bit confusing, well it is, because the dance evolves in one direction through most of its length, and then suddenly seems to switch intellectual gears. It’s My Fair Lady with an unhappy ending.
Eifman’s story tells of an impoverished young woman with boundless energy but no boundaries to her effervescent movement who ekes out a living providing carriage rides to tourists for a presumably inflated fee, and a world class ballroom dancer who trains her to become a ballroom dance champion – effectively, he teaches her to speak ballroom. Gala is the young woman, Leon is the champion ballroom dancer. [Gala = Galatea; Leon, I suspect, is a shortened form of Pygmalion.]
After the audience is initially introduced to Gala, her father, and their petty thief cohorts attempting to separate tourists from their money, cut to the next scene in Leon’s extravagant high-rise apartment, which he apparently shares with his dancing partner, Tea, some maids, and their supervisor. [Tea = maybe, Aphrodite] Leon loses a ballroom dance competition, which he blames on Tea. Concurrently (almost), Gala, who to my recollection arrived at Leon’s building (or the location of the competition – which may be the same place) while dropping off tourists, observes the contest, and soon thereafter rescues Leon from a gang of mobsters (my guess – they bet on Leon and Tea, and lost), and the appreciative Leon sees in Gala a way to get back at Tea, who he blames for the loss. Along the way, Gala’s father, a hard-drinking, hard-dancing, hard-headed type named Holmes [Holmes = I haven’t a clue; maybe an allusion to Gala’s “home”] follows Gala into Leon’s manse in the sky. Yada, yada, yada; Leon and Gala become romantically involved (albeit from an emotional distance) and win the next ballroom dance tournament, but instead of living happily ever after, he rejects her because of her checkered past. [Checker … cab … carriage. Forgive me.] Underneath it all, and despite everything she’s learned, she’s still beneath his station.
So … for most of its performance time, the ballet parallels My Fair Lady. Then, without apparent warning (or with warnings too understated to recognize), reality in the form of the Pygmalion effect destroys the dream. Gala’s dream, not Leon’s.
I suppose that the dance’s focus on ballroom dancing is no less tiresome sounding than focusing on the trials and tribulations of a linguist and his pupil, and it allows for far more movement than would the environment of a presumably more cerebral professor. But why ballroom? Perhaps because ballroom dancing is considered more open to competitive events and becoming a “ballroom champion” – a goal to aspire to, like speaking the King’s English – than ballet or contemporary dance. Ok. And maybe, notwithstanding “Dancing With the Stars,” (“DWTS”) ballroom dancing has more of a cache in Russia than it does here. To me, however, it seems a strained effort to provide an environment where choreographed movement would be an essential component of the production.
More importantly, what Eifman has created in the group dances that provide the ballroom background appear to me, except for brief periods when couples are seen dancing together, to be set pieces imposed on the ballroom scene (like the post-commercial ensemble dances in DWTS). The choreography is very lively and the dancing corps is energetic and effusive, but its main purpose is to pump action. Indeed, the sense of superimposed group dances appears similar to the superimposed dances in Eifman’s Red Giselle, a ballet that I admired but did not find compelling (and which, in a way, raised similar issues). There’s nothing wrong with that, but here it all looks like stuff I’ve seen before. And while some of the dancing in which Holmes is featured is more focused, all I kept seeing situationally (not necessarily choreographically) was “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me To The Church On Time.”
The ballet’s music is a mish-mosh of pieces composed almost exclusively by Johann Strauss the Son, a/k/a “The Waltz King.” [The exception is the music accompanying the final scene (the tragic outcome), which is by Mozart.] The choreography fits the music well, but in totality it comes across more as a jumble of relative insignificance than the finely honed curations in other Eifman ballets, and it contributes (maybe intentionally) to the sense that the dance occupies a lower intellectual / class level than other Eifman pieces, as Gala does in comparison to Leon — at least until reality in the form of introspection and Mozart kicks in.
The romantic awakening dances between Gala and Leon are lovely, and those for Gala alone are either high-octane exercises or heartbreaking. But I saw little of the complexity and intensity (physical and emotional) present in Eifman’s other pieces – this dance doesn’t call for it.
There are certainly aspects of The Pygmalion Effect that are interesting, or just plain brilliant. When the set (a marvelous amalgam of 19th Century urban slums clashing with an elite art deco-inspired environment, designed by Zinovy Margolin) morphs from the streets of the unnamed city to Leon’s apartment in the sky, one quickly observes upstage right a man, presumably Leon, being bathed and pampered by his “maids” – completely naked (only his back is exposed to the audience). At first, I found this disconcerting – not because it was a male and his “maids” were being exploited, but because it didn’t appear to make any contextual sense. And then I remembered the context – this is Eifman turning the tables. Leon’s body was being idolized like … a statue. And not any statue, the statue is like many of Aphrodite, albeit seen from the rear, and armless (the maids provide those). So early on, Eifman establishes that Leon is to be Gala’s object of desire.
Fast forward to the ballroom competition, where the contest entrants are initially visualized as standing, posing, separated from each other by the decorative dividers of the ballroom wall. Another brilliant allusion – the effect is that these men and women are positioned between pillars, like in a museum display, and although clothed, they’re moving sculptures to admire, desire, and … fall in love with. And the name of the building where all this takes place: Galatea, a house of statues that come to life.
But some of the comedy is either overblown or incomprehensible. At one point during Gala’s training, after she falls on top of Leon, there’s a sight gag that appears to visualize Leon, er, aroused – which at that point was superfluous as well as being gross. And a character materializes from out of nowhere, an Angel from Heaven (well, I did describe Leon’s apartment as being sky-high) to try to convince Holmes to walk the straight and narrow. I suspect I’m missing something beyond it’s being a comedic interlude for the sake of having a comedic interlude, but the scene to me had no purpose – notwithstanding the quality of the comedic interaction between this Angel (portrayed by Daniel Rubin) and Holmes. And the character of the Coach (Igor Subbotin) – the Colonel Pickering of the dance (Leon makes a bet with the Coach that he’ll be able to transform the hyperactive waif into a champion ballroom dancer) is far too stereotyped – as are many of the male dancers in the ballroom competition.
As Gala, Lyubov Andreyeva is a lanky, long-limbed bundle of ceaseless energy. Think an atomic particle with legs. And although I didn’t find her characterization particularly endearing, I don’t think I was supposed to until the unhappy ending. My only complaint with her performance has nothing at all to do with her – I was expecting, maybe, Julie Andrews or Audrey Hepburn. Oleg Gabyshev’s Leon was thoroughly credible as a somewhat self-important ballroom dance champion with a lofty perch. His portrayal lacked the intensity that I found so compelling in his roles in Tchaikovsky.Pro et Contra and Anna Karenina, but that’s not his fault – again, this piece doesn’t call for intense dramatic physical and emotional interaction. As Tea, the haughty, alluring, ballroom dance goddess with an attitude, Alina Petrovskaya not only looked the part; her portrayal was spot on. And Dmitry Fisher as Holmes was the dance’s high-intensity low-life spark-plug, even though his character’s only material quality was to limit the parameters of Gala’s pedigree.
The Pygmalion Effect is not by any means a bad ballet. Evaluations are relative, and to me its primary deficiency is that it doesn’t measure up to Eifman’s successes. But I must emphasize that my opinion was not shared, at least not by those in the opening night audience, who obviously gushed over the ballet, the dancers, and Eifman.
In the end, The Pygmalion Effect gives its audiences a lot to think about: Who was the teacher and who the student; who was the dreamer and who the dreamer’s object? Can one ever escape one’s class? Are impossible dreams doomed to fail? In light of human nature, can an unhappy ending to the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea be accepted as an unfortunate truth?
As to this last question, my understanding is that Petipa’s ballet had an unhappy, tragic ending as well. If audiences in the 21st Century are more inclined to accept that Pygmalion-like impossible dreams don’t always end happily, maybe Eifman’s ballet will enjoy a longer artistic lifespan.