Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg
New York, New York
June 2 and 9, 2017
Tchaikovsky.Pro et Contra
Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg returned to New York last week as part of a broader North American tour to celebrate its 40th Anniversary, bringing with it two of its representative ballets – and seemingly the entire Russian expatriate population to see them. Both Red Giselle and Tchaikovsky.Pro et Contra, created by Artistic Director Boris Eifman in 1998 and 1993 respectively, have been presented here on several prior occasions, garnering reviews that run the gamut from gushing to contemptuous depending on whether Eifman’s style is seen as a breath of fresh air or the choreographic equivalent of an egg sizzling on a sidewalk on a blisteringly hot summer day. After seeing these ballets at their opening City Center performances, my view is somewhat in between.
Red Giselle has achieved a sizeable reputation, but Tchaikovsky.Pro et Contra (an awful title – presumably the product of poor translation; hereinafter simply Tchaikovsky, which is the title by which the ballet is often identified) is a more impressive piece. In the former, which is an homage of sorts to celebrated Russian ballerina Olga Spessivtseva, Eifman plays fast and loose with events in his subject’s life, and also with the choreography that illustrates it. Some of it works, but much of it comes off confusing and opaque. In Tchaikovsky, however, the ballet’s libretto is a reconstruction of events based on presumed deathbed memory. Although this suicidal deathbed scenario may be pure fiction, the fact that the “facts” are not necessarily facts, just a tormented man’s collection of memories, makes it somewhat more palatable, at least to me: when it comes to memories in anticipation of death, a little distortion goes with the territory.
Be that as it may, in order to appreciate Eifman’s choreography, one must accept at least four premises. First, that drama, both in expression and impression, is the point of his ballets (at least those I’ve seen), and second, that the actual choreography consists of whatever it takes to further the dramatic point(s). That’s not necessarily a bad thing: in a ballet society in which choreographic style and invention is considered by many as an end in itself, with Eifman the choreography is a means to an end, which perhaps is as it should be.
The third point is that like his choreography, Eifman’s use of music is a means to a dramatic end. While a selected piece of music might work in a given scene (as in his use of segments from Bizet’s L’Arlesienne for some of the “Paris”-based scenes in Red Giselle), more often the music is whatever provides the most bombast for the buck. Indeed, even where the ballet directly references other ballets or musical compositions, Eifman – obviously intentionally – has selected nothing from the referenced pieces themselves to choreograph to (with the exception of snippets from Adam’s score from Giselle). Consequently, the curated scores are sound collages that makes little musical stylistic sense.
The fourth point is that Eifman does not seem to know the meaning of subtlety, either in his dramaturgy or in his choreography. It’s a style, as much, I think, as neo-classicism is a style. Call it, perhaps, neo-romanticism. It’s not the same as the Romantic style of, say, Giselle – indeed, in that sense, it’s more anti-Romantic. Rather, Eifman’s style is loud and vivid and percussive, and it makes its dramatic point with a combination of power and theatricality that never lets go, and that infuses even the most delicate of emotional contexts with a level of intensity that’s as much a depiction of feverish hysteria as passion. That’s not a criticism. Eifman’s style just requires some acclimation. When it fails, it’s incoherent. When it works, it comes across as exciting as watching a battle for emotional dominance as well as physical supremacy; a battle not so much of the gods, but of ballet superheroes.
Although Eifman’s choreographic vocabulary is relatively limited, that’s not nearly as important as the at times extraordinarily original combinations he puts together and the explosive physicality that he emphasizes – keeping in mind the time frame in which these ballets were created. Generalities always have exceptions, but Eifman’s ballets – at least based on these two – are a combination of intricate partnering, including pervasive lifts and almost acrobatic body-weaving; set ensemble pieces either beautifully balletic or calculated to stuff a point down the viewers’ throats; and individual movement that seems dominated by appendages held at impossible angles. Indeed, I had the impression that if Eifman’s choreography looks awkward and strained at times, which it often does, so much the better, because it reflects the tortured personalities and events he describes.
But because his vocabulary is limited, scenes in the ballets can tend to look repetitious. Ensemble dances, no matter how vibrant, look similar from one group dance to another, and from one ballet to another. Nevertheless, because the pace of his ballets is as feverish as his choreography (with rare exception, the scenes proceed from one to another without breaking, if at all, more than a second or two), and with sets morphing in front of the audience’s eyes, the presentation and impact is very much like American musical theater – in a Wagnerian sort of way.
In Red Giselle, Eifman explores Spessivtseva’s life in scenes that illustrate her progression from ballet student in St. Petersburg to star ballerina (considered one of the greatest of Russian ballerinas, and perhaps the most renowned Romantic ballerina of her time) both with the Mariinsky and its Soviet successor, to her departure from Russia, arrival in the West, and subsequent mental illness. If the focus had been that general, with clear transitions from one period to the next, it might have worked.
Eifman focuses instead on Spessivtseva’s failed romantic relationships, first with a Soviet Commissar, and then with a dancer she encounters after leaving Russia (and he hints at another with her Russian ballet teacher). But the connection between these relationships and her madness, and her being mentally coopted into believing herself to be living the Giselle story, looks forced and artificial, and collaterally turns Spessivtseva from being a sympathetic victim into somewhat of a loose cannon from the outset. Part of the reason is that the relationships that Eifman relies on (Spessivtseva reportedly did have relationships with a Soviet functionary, Boris Kaplun, and dancer Serge Lifar, whom she met in Paris after leaving Russia) are simply there – there’s nothing leading up to them. The Soviets take over the Mariinsky, the Commissar takes control, and all of a sudden she’s in a highly destructive dominant / submissive relationship with him. Similarly, the relationship with her “Partner” in Paris is obviously doomed from the beginning, and one that made no sense for her to enter into. The Partner is pictured as being homosexual from the outset (the movement quality Eifman provides for him is slinky, effeminate) – so even before she’s introduced to his “Friend,” his inability to sustain any relationship with her is a surprise to no one but, apparently, her.
The ballet is not without high points. The opening scenes of a Mariinsky Ballet class are an effortless and somewhat fun regurgitation of class exercises (in no way remindful of Etudes), but it’s done in by the obvious entrance of the “Ballerina” (Spessivtseva), who immediately captures the eye of her Teacher, and in no time at all is the toast of the Mariinsky. The Soviet seizure of the Mariinsky Theater and the forced conversion of it into a sort of “peoples’ ballet company” (in reality, the Petrograd Ballet) is depicted vividly and frighteningly – somewhat the inverse of the romanticized revolutionary scenes in, say, The Flames of Paris. If this were Broadway, that scene would stop the show. And although the duets for the Ballerina and the Commissar are overbaked, the several pas de trois between the Partner, his Friend, and the Ballerina are very intriguingly presented. I would have preferred more of a focus on the Ballerina and her role as Giselle (as well as other ballets for which she was well known, like Swan Lake, which is only hinted at), since the “Giselle connection” is part of Red Giselle’s raison d’etre, the connections that are there are skillfully done. And in every respect, the sets by Vyacheslav Okunev (who also did the costumes) are outstanding. The evocation of the interior of the Mariinsky Theater; and the multi-faceted transformation of the theater’s dome, is fascinating to watch unfold.
Of the lead dancers, Maria Abashova portrayed Spessivtseva as a celebrated ballerina victimized as much, if not more, by her own choices than by historical events, and alternatively terrified and confused. Although she didn’t seem to fit with the role at the outset, the role grew into her (as opposed to her growing into the role) as the ballet progressed. She even looks somewhat like photographic images I’ve seen of Spessivtseva. But the role is not drawn as sympathetically is it might have been, and consequently she’s not as sympathetic a character as she might have been. Oleg Gabyshev’s Partner was somewhat of an enigma to me – but that’s appropriate for Eifman’s conception of the role, in which the Partner seems to be an enigma to himself. And I liked the inspiration and frustration that Oleg Markov provided as the Teacher. But the prevailing stage presence throughout the piece was Sergey Volobuev’s Commissar. Although, based on this piece as well as the Tchaikovsky ballet that followed, Volobuev may be somewhat of a one-note dancer (serpentine; virile; arrogant; powerful), in Red Giselle he was effective and dominant. His portrayal and appearance led me to think of Alexander Godunov as if possessed by Darth Vader.
Tchaikovsky is at least equally powerful, and far more coherent, than Red Giselle. While Eifman here skirts with misogyny with his conception of Tchaikovsky’s conniving wife, Antonina Milyukova, who is part temptress and part witch, this is, after all, a visualization of Tchaikovsky’s memory of an unwanted and failed relationship. So if she at times appears a little like a reptilian zombie, it’s because in Tchaikovsky’s mind that’s what she was.
In other respects, however, the piece is intellectually intriguing – particularly in the way in which it intertwines Tchaikovsky’s personal life with his compositions (though, curiously, not the compositions themselves), the theory being that certain of the characters in the stories are surrogates for those aspects of his personality that he is afraid to reveal publicly. This isn’t an original idea – artists’ characters are often seen as representations of themselves, but Eifman delivers it with stunningly conceived theatricality and stagecraft.
Eifman ties all this together (Tchaikovsky’s memories of events in his life, and the theory of surrogate characters) by envisioning the creation of a deathbed alter ego. “Tchaikovsky’s Double,” as he is called, is both a demon who possesses those qualities of his own personality that Tchaikovsky fears, and a doppelganger who assumes the roles theoretically created to camouflage these qualities (a surrogate playing a surrogate). While Eifman’s inclusion of von Rothbart and Drosselmeyer as characters who exemplify this horrifying side of Tchaikovsky’s personality (in his own mind) is somewhat of a stretch, his choreographed references to Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades are both brilliantly executed and remarkably effective.
Aside from camouflaged characters, Eifman also peppers Tchaikovsky with concepts that explore other connections that may exist between Tchaikovsky’s inner demons and his creations. For example, the choreographed reference to Swan Lake initially features black-outfitted male swans, implying, perhaps, that Tchaikovsky imagined the story’s scenario as one of males (like him) being “converted” into unnatural beings by an evil force beyond their (or Tchaikovsky’s) control.
The intelligent, and intelligently executed, exploration of camouflaged characters is not the only reason that Tchaikovsky is as fine a piece as it is. The scenes with “real” memories are visual nightmares. The one scene that towers over the others is the brilliant “wedding” scene that closes Act I, in which Tchaikovsky sees himself as being hopelessly trapped into marriage. It’s exceptionally harrowing, and exceptionally good. And once again, throughout the ballet the sets (this time by Zinovy Margolin), as well as the costumes (by Olga Shaishmelashvili and Okunev), are outstanding.
By far the most significant character in the ballet, besides Tchaikovsky himself, is his wife. As Milyukova, Lyubov Andreyeva is a force of nature, delivering a multi-faceted character believable in every facet, from seducer to siren to sex object to tormentor to viper to the virulent and contagious mental invalid who bores into Tchaikovsky’s soul. The character of Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s benefactor, is of relatively limited significance in the ballet, and Abashova doesn’t have much to do but drop oodles of money and look concerned. But she compensates for it with her fiery portrayal of the vicious Countess from The Queen of Spades. Volobuev essentially repeats his dominating characterization of the Commissar in his role as Tchaikovsky’s Double, and Dmitry Krylov plays three different roles (the Prince from The Nutcracker, Lensky from Eugene Onegin, and the Joker from Queen of Spades) most impressively. And Polina Petrova, Lilia Lishchuk, and Alina Fisher (as, respectively, Masha from The Nutcracker, and Tatyana and Olga from Eugene Onegin) made me wish I’d been able to see them in more extensive roles. [Indeed, the entire company consists of highly talented dancers, and made a very strong impression.] But the performance belonged to Gabyshev, whose twisted body/twisted mind portrayal of the tormented Tchaikovsky, though possibly overly dramatized to some, to me is one of the highlights of the ballet performance year.
With the benefit of 2017 hindsight, Eifman’s ballets may seem retro, and too indebted to Soviet style ballet athleticism. But his ballets fill a void, one that more filigree choreography and more coherent story-telling may not always do. They certainly attract a loyal Russian audience – the rhythmic applause at each performances’ conclusion made me feel as if I was in St. Petersburg-on-the-Hudson. And his ballets have one additional benefit – there’s no danger whatsoever of dozing off while watching them.