Ballet Genius: A Review of Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg.

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I came to Boris Eifman’s Gala Night completely prepared to fall unconscious. I was sick, sleepy, and my aunt, whom I haven’t seen in months, was the only real reason I was there. We crammed into the tiny seats not far from either the back wall or the ceiling of the New York City Center on West 56th Street and allowed people to step all over our feet as late comers tried to shuffle to their seats before the curtain came up. The show was sold out.

It is very difficult to tell a story with ballet–the audience should know the plot and then read it into the dance. This is why I often fall asleep or at least find my mind wondering while enduring the art of ballet I have to remind myself took the dancers years to perfect. Eifman reinvents the ballet with each new production and makes it clear that it is not a one-dimensional performance to be enjoyed only through hyper-cultural snobbery.

Nikita Dmitrievsky, a student of Boris Eifman, choreographed the first piece entitled Cassandra. I found it to be both powerful and odd. Swordplay caught my attention as the scores of wiggling and choppily moving figures could not. Cassandra and Agamemnon’s struggle was most memorable; their dance was violent and forceful with Cassandra dominated and the action climbing until death took the stage and finally the curtain fell. It was modern. It did not take me away from my stomachache.

During the intermission we perused the playbill and my aunt laughingly asked who was going to play the train in Anna Karenina, which was one of Eifman’s select choreographic works to be performed tonight. Gala Night was basically a sampler as well as the opening night of a series of shows to follow through the next week before the traveling troupe of Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg would move on. The second Act of this night read as follows: Who’se Who (Rachmaninoff); Who’se Who (Company), Karamazovs (Rachmaninoff), Karamazovs (Wagner), Anna Karenina (Chaikovsky), Double Voice (Pink Floyd), Don Quixote (Minkus), Don Juan & Moliere (Mozart).

Dancers, masks, and ballet never happened to me at the same time before, but during the first Who’se Who I wondered how uncomfortable it must have been to dance with not just elaborate costumes but beautiful and surely stifling masks over the faces of the acrobatic dancers. After a few minutes of wild gyrations the masked ones were infiltrated with peasants who swung each other around wildly. It occurred to me later that I just saw two pieces at more or less the same time. The transitions were just as seamless through the rest of the act. The dance seemed simple enough, but fluid. Patters emerged, then disappeared. I was caught up in their web of movements. I was enthralled.

As if by magic, the stage was cleared and a wall of bars wheeled out by two running men in black. A dancer in a simple tunic and baggy pants threw himself against the cage on the left while a woman in black threw herself against it from the opposite side. Movement by movement they twined against each other through the cage until they fell away and the cage disappeared allowing them to touch without the cold bars. A short while later the bars were back and again they clung to the opposite sides of the cage, passive now, moving lethargically until they fell away again.

Everything occurred so quickly but after they left the stage we realized that this must have been the heartbreaking scene in the story of Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky. We just saw Dmitry Karamazov and Grushenka, whom he loves, and whom his father loved too. After Dmitry’s father’s brutal murder, the suspicions fell on Dmitry and, half-crazed, he was thrown in jail. Grushenka dedicated herself to Dmitry and finally returned his love although too late, as he was only a husk of himself. The scene reenacted for our benefit on stage took place after both characters have had religious experiences that changed their lives just as those lives appeared to be ending.

The theme of religion is carried through to the next excerpt from the same novel. A slim man in black monk robes collapses against a man in black leather while a voice quotes from Ivan Karamazov’s “poem” as read to his younger brother, Alyosha. The poem, which is actually prose, talked of an Inquisitor who found out the people of his city were revering a man they said was Jesus. Quickly, the Inquisitor had this man brought to his dungeons. Ripe with expectations of ridicule and torture, the Inquisitor came to Jesus and told him that he held no power over the people with his heavenly promises, while earthly bread was in the hands of people such as the Inquisitor. The Inquisitor became more and more enraged as he harangued his prisoner, then doubtful. He said that even if God was really here, in this cell, the best thing he could do was to disappear, to leave the weak-willed, weak-minded people in the hands of the strong, the more capable hands. He eventually ordered Jesus to leave, to not come back, to not wreck what has been built in his absence. With a kiss, Jesus does what he is bidden.

In Eifman’s rendition, there is no kiss. The genderless dancer representing Jesus throws himself against the Inquisitor, against the gaggle of identical men, performing mechanically identical actions in their rags. The figure, powerless, finally leaves, dejected. The concluding words of the poem echo through the theater.

A man and a woman are now on stage. The woman is wearing a flesh colored leotard, and appears naked. She dances with a man who is fully dressed as an officer. This is Anna Karenina and her lover Vronsky. We are witnessing a portion of Eifman’s new addition to his choreographed genius. They embrace, fall apart, and embrace again. He tears her away, tosses her away, and leaves. The stage is suddenly filled with men wearing black, the music changes, it is overcome with the noise of a moving train, which intensifies, quickens. The men are moving their arms up, down, to the sides. They change places robotically; their ranks are broken, combined, then split into two groups. The lights dim over them, but a bright light appears above, where Anna Karenina, wearing a flowing dress, runs down the scaffolding built over the stage, and then pauses for a moment while facing the spell-bound audience. My heart beats in my ears and I am overwhelmed with the noise as she falls down into the hungry arms of the men below. All goes black.

The familiar strains of Pink Floyd flood the stage and two dancers dance a strange dance. The woman, in nude colored tights lies collapsed on the floor, while her partner supports her. She rises, her legs trembling like a newborn calf’s. She falls, he catches her, somehow becoming her legs. Her back bends; her body becomes part of his. It is clear to me that these dancers are also gymnasts. They slowly twist and glide their pliable bodies across the floor until the man is suddenly alone. The song has changed and he is rolling across the floor, his back bend double, his hands holding onto his feet. His progress is slow, torturous, and as the song becomes a scream, the dancer’s face contorts into a grimace of pain, his mouth open in the scream voiced by the music.

Ah, but this is a gala night! And so, Don Juan and Don Quixote are combined into a comedic dance of clowns with a festival feel and happy couples dancing to cheerful music. The whole troupe is on stage and they take a bow to an explosion of applause and the screams of “Bravo!” coming from a drunken man (who has been taking sips of vodka throughout the performance) in front of me. After a few encores, Eifman himself comes out, takes a bow with his troupe and is nearly run over by a huge table that is brought out from backstage. A throne-like chair appears and Eifman is plopped into it. A motley crew of girl clown with garish make up and outlandish costumes plop down on a bench and mimic eating a feast while a male clown crashes on the bench next to them, starting a domino effect of each girl popping up and back down until Eifman himself flies up into the air and then falls back into his seat looking startled to the immense satisfaction of the laughing audience. The clowns are all over the table and are trying to be all over Eifman, beaten back only by the male clown. A wild party is obviously taking place, the gala night finished with a feast.

The bows are taken again and thunderous applause lasts for many minutes. The flawless execution, the story telling, and the hallucination of all-powerful bodies at play stay with me for days after. Eifman does not tour U.S. often, but when he does, it would be a gross misdoing to not attend.

Copyright © 2007 Eat The Lemons

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