The Theater of Boris Eifman: fantasies of a dreamer.
Boris Eifman's St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre has existed for more than twenty years, but it is now touring the United States for the first time. There are no companies comparable to Eifman's in the world of Russian ballet. It is the only contemporary troupe that has attained stability--it continues to evolve and to earn acclaim, and it has received all the major Russian theatrical awards. When the troupe visited Moscow in September 1997 to perform at the Bolshoi, it was the first modern company to have the honor of dancing on such a prestigious stage. Eifman celebrated the twentieth anniversary of his troupe, as well as his own fiftieth birthday, on that occasion. The company had won not only the love of the audience but also official recognition. Eifman's ascent, however, has been riddled with obstacles; this choreographer can truly be considered a self-made man.
For as long as Eifman can remember, he has choreographed and performed his own dances. At thirteen, while studying at the Kishinev Ballet and Music College, he started creating dances for his peers. At fifteen he came to Leningrad, where he met renowned choreographer Leonid Jacobson (with whom he remained friends until the master's death in 1975). Eifman asked, "How does one become a choreographer? Jacobson answered, "Choreographers are born!" Eifman decided to continue his professional training at the Leningrad Conservatory under the gifted modern choreographer Georgi Aleksidze while also studying the structure and aesthetics of Yuri Grigorovich's ballets. Such are his "Russian roots," but he really created himself. His uniqueness became apparent with Gayane, set to the Aram Khachaturian score, staged in 1972 at Leningrad's Maly Theatre of Opera and Ballet. This full-length ballet, Eifman's senior project, did not seem like the debut of a novice but the result of seasoned artistic conceptions. The ballet was a huge success and remained in the theater's repertory for twenty-three years.
After graduation, Eifman was invited to stage ballets for the Leningrad Choreographic School, and in 1975 he staged his original production of Igor Stravinsky's Firebird at the Kirov. Offers to stage conservative Soviet ballet productions followed, but now Eifman's visions were for a different style of theater. Fortunately, he received an offer in 1977 to head a small company under the auspices of the Gosconcert organization to develop a theater for young people. Ballet for them, he decided, must speak in a musical language that they could understand.
The first programs were based on rock and jazz and combined classical dance with rock and roll and acrobatics, a mix of technical styles that became the basis of his future works. At the time, any movement away from academic ballet impressed audiences as a symbolic act of freedom. Young people flew to the new theater, but survival was still a struggle. Initially, there was no place to rehearse. Government subsidies were miserably low; foreign tours, the real meal tickets for the troupe, began much later.
The biggest obstacle, however, was Soviet censorship. Eifman was expected to produce highly patriotic spectacles about "happy Russian youth." Instead, he presented themes of life and death and complicated romantic relationships in unusual choreography that alarmed the censors. Eifman says, "In the West, the search for one's path is the norm. In Russia, it is the mark of outcasts." Some officials constantly hinted that, as a Jew, Eifman could always emigrate (those in charge could have done quite well without having the innovator around); however, the choreographer wanted to work in Russia. "They constantly attempted to shut us down," said Eifman. "We fought back as much as we could and managed to triumph because the regime grew weak."
The character of Eifman's theater as well as the style of his choreography was fully developed by the late eighties. In 1991, The Murderers, based on Emile Zola's Therese Raquin, began his stream of masterpieces--Tchaikovsky, The Karamazovs, Don Quixote, and Red Giselle--with philosophical plots (in the Russian ballet tradition), full of colorful theatrical expression and sharp dramatic conflicts, with full use of cinematic as well as theatrical devices. "We create a spectacle with a complete plot outline--rising action, climax, and resolution," says Eifman, "but it is not a dramatic play, not a retelling of the story. It is a ballet. Using the movement of the body, we try to express the protagonist's inner life, his emotions. I have always striven for the dramatization of the dance, the physicalization of emotions of the soul."
Eifman believes that only by emotionally involving the audience can he make them understand the ideas of the show--the problems of love and death, themes of good and evil, power and freedom, clime and consequences. An Eifman ballet is a solitary stream of choreography with amazing dueling duets and complicated scenic ensembles. Classical ballet is the foundation of Eifman's choreographic language (it is the only Russian school): "I can blend fouette with flamenco and break [dancing]. The main thing is the ability to express stronger emotions. I feel that the future of ballet is dance based on various technical styles. Classical dance can be considered the basis of my choreography, but, realistically, it is the free dance of emotions."
For him, choreography begins with the music. "I am constantly in the world of music," he says. "Not only do I hear it, I also see it. It gives birth to my ideas. I created Master and Margarita [based on Mikhail Bulgakov's novel] because I heard Andrei Petrov's music." (Petrov's compositions include fragments of recorded music by composers of various styles and eras.) The goal is to find the most emotional combination of different elements of ballet, just like choosing the genre of the ballet--drama or comedy. There is no middle ground; every emotion is taken to extremes.
At first Eifman listens to the music between rehearsals of other works or at night in his office, where he sometimes lives for weeks at a time. Then he concentrates on the story line by discussing the ballet with various advisers and collaborators. Pale and dark, with the sad eyes of a Jewish prophet, he strokes his beard as he discusses the details of the plot. Although the completed ballet may be completely at odds with all the advice he has received, Eifman insists that this process is essential. Through these discussions he crystallizes the meaning. The work's construction is clearly thought out. All choreography is then created during rehearsal, stimulated by working directly with the dancers.
"At the beginning," he says, "I had to overcome the artists' resistance. I had to explain to former students of the choreographic school who were weaned on classics that where you put this or that is not cynicism or platitude but art. Sometimes I had to fight for each movement." Today his company is a troupe of like-minded people who are virtuosos in the language of their choreographer. This is true not only of the premier dancers but also of the incredible corps de ballet, where each dancer is also an actor.
The Karamazovs (1995), to the music of Rachmaninoff, Wagner, and Mussorgsky, has become a crowd pleaser. The ballet is very different from the great Dostoyevsky novel The Brothers Karamazov. The power-hungry old father is killed in the first act. The second act consists of two dance suites for his sons Ivan and Aleksei and "the devils" (the people). The first is darkly pessimistic: led by Ivan, the Grand Inquisitor, the people are ready to crucify Christ again. In the second suite, the dancing crowd of devils whom Aleksei has freed takes over the "clean hero" for a short time, turning him into a devil. Wrenching himself from their influence, Aleksei crawls to the cross in horror. Contemporary Russians understand this idea of man's powerlessness against chaos, where murder gives rise to murder.
Another philosophical ballet, Don Quixote (based on the music of Minkus), is more optimistic. The show's only connection to the classical ballet is its Spanish setting. The main action takes place in an asylum where a patient considers himself to be Don Quixote, defender of the weak and the oppressed everywhere. A stern nurse throws a hoop around the madman to subdue him, but by freeing himself from it, the patient becomes Don Quixote on a sunny Spanish plaza. Eifman considers the ballet autobiographical: "I remember how the powers that be wanted to tear me away from art and put me into such a circle."
This month St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre is touring the United States, performing two of Eifman's best ballets, Tchaikovsky (1993) and Red Giselle (1997). The former, a multidimensional, philosophical creation is in no way intended to be a biography of the composer although it is scored with several of his works. Eifman concentrated on the tragic themes in Tchaikovsky's music and homosexuality, which Eifman considers the source of the composer's personal ordeal and the wellspring of his creativity. It should be mentioned that homosexuality has always been considered a perversion in Russia, and until recently was a crime. (At the ballet's premiere some five years ago, demonstrators picketed the theater, demanding the ballet be banned.)
The main characters in Tchaikovsky are the composer and a second Tchaikovsky who represents the composer's secret knowledge of himself, his wife, and Baroness Von Meck, his patron. The double is his only true friend but also his worst enemy, as well as his greatest provocateur. In the ballet, reality is tightly interwoven with fantasy. The double and Von Meck assume a number of roles. Von Meck, gowned in lavender, is also the Evil Fairy Carabosse and the Queen of Spades. The ballet is full of visual associations. (Is there a line between the Lilac Fairy and the specter of death?)
The composer shields himself from the complexities of life by surrounding himself with a world of white swans. The white prince, escorted by white swans, takes the double into eternity. The dying Tchaikovsky is surrounded by the black funeral garb of his relatives. The resolution of the conflict is pure romanticism: Only death is wonderful. It alone dissolves all conflicts and calms the wounded heart. Only through death does the creator attain ideals of beauty and harmony.
Red Giselle, using music by Tchaikovsky, Schnittke, and Bizet, tells the tragic story of the incredible turn-of-the-century Russian ballerina Olga Spessivtseva. She danced in the Maryinsky Theatre in Diaghilev's troupe, and Serge Lifar revived Giselle at the Paris Opera especially for her. She went to the United States, where she briefly performed onstage, suffered a nervous breakdown, spent twenty years in a hospital, and died in a nursing home in 1991.
Eifman decided on the title after seeing a Spessivtseva drawing of a ballerina, apparently seen through a red veil, in the white costume of Giselle but wearing red shoes. Reality and insane fantasies are intertwined here more than in any other Eifman work. For example, the Ballerina uses the veil to drag the head of either Chekist (her lover-enemy) or possibly John the Baptist (a reference to a ballet she dances). The Ballerina loses her mind while dancing the first act of Giselle. The French Premier comes to see her at the hospital in a scene reminiscent of the ballet's second act. Now the Ballerina looks like a witch, and the Wilis appear in straitjackets and attempt to destroy her, as well as the Premier. The music is from the last scene of the Adam ballet overlaid with bells from the Schnittke piece. The Ballerina's madness disappears with the Wilis, and she enters a world of mirrors that symbolizes her entire life in ballet class. This vision of immortality is again the romantic idea that death is the resolution of all conflicts. Could the choreographer have thought of death as the beginning of an artist's immortality?
I was at the Bolshoi during a rehearsal of Red Giselle. Nothing was going right. The workers moving through an unfamiliar stage could not change the scenery or set up the lights fast enough. In other words, it was an ordinary working rehearsal. Suddenly Eifman turned to me. "Will you help me find Eastern music when I come to New York?" he asked. "I want to stage a ballet called Three Religions." He then began explaining the idea. The creator had once again broken clear of another encircling hoop, and unleashed fantasy was working nonstop.
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|Title Annotation:||tour of Boris Eifman's St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre|
|Article Type:||Cover Story|
|Date:||Apr 1, 1998|
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