writers on dancing


Eifman's Verkitschen "Anna Karenina"


"Anna Karenina "
Eifman Ballet
Zellerbach Hall
[Sponsored by Cal Performances]
New York, New York
June 18, 2005

by Ann Murphy
copyright ©2005 by Ann Murphy

As the curtain came down on Boris Eifman's evening long "Anna Karenina" the audience rose to its feet and cheered. It was impossible to be surprised. During intermission the thrill quotient in the theater was high and the neighboring couple was already gushing: "Did you see when they were divided by those bars and they suddenly started to perform the same movements with their arms? They couldn't even see each other. It was magnificent," the woman said.

"Sublime, " the man said.

You'd have thought my neighbors' breathless admiration was caused by some unearthly act. But what made them gush was a seamlessly executed but utterly commonplace dance moment when Anna Karenina (Maria Abashova) and her lover Vronsky (Yuri Smekalov), each in a bed and separated by a scrim to symbolize different physical spaces and their mutual yearning, suddenly sweep their arms through the air in unison. Night after night across the dancing world such feats of training are ticked off by professionals without a thought, and yet no one could have convinced this audience that the dancers weren't engaging in something as paranormal as telepathy.

Large numbers of the audience were not just visually pleased by the ballet, although they were that and had a right to be; the costumes were sumptuous, the sets were grand, if gaudy, and the dancers were gorgeously leggy, lithe space eaters.They also clearly had had a big emotional experience.

But what kind of emotional experience is on offer when one of the great tragic stories of Western literature, with its intricate network of political and social life, is reduced to a tawdry tale about a beautiful woman who can't resist the hunk in a military uniform, despite having a devoted husband (Karenin was danced as a suffering stoic by Albert Galichanin) and an iconically cute son waiting for her at home in his sailor's suit?

A simple one. So simple, in fact, that its warm reception indicates how starved we are for expression of deep emotion and tragedy but how well programmed to find it in soap opera. Soap opera makes real tragedy—tragedy that communicates harsh and disturbing mysteries—untenable and disquieting. Kitsch is safer: it is brash and sentimental, and in sentimentality there is the illusion that causes and effects are equally easy. This includes war, which means that death, too, is easy. The truth, however, is that death is hard, and in death's uncompromising mystery is a corresponding mystery in life. Kitsch repudiates puzzles.

In "Consumer Society," Baudrillard writes, "To the aesthetics of beauty and originality, kitsch opposes its aesthetics of simulation: it everywhere reproduces objects smaller or larger than life; it imitates materials (in plaster, plastic, etc.); it apes forms or combines them discordantly; it repeats fashion without having been part of the experience of fashion."

This is Eifman's metier. He produces inflated, larger than life ballets that at bottom are pompous and empty. He gives us the Cliff Notes version of Tolstoy's love story, takes the central nervous system out and leaves a pop culture shell with old world Russian trappings. Eviscerated, "Anna Karenina" becomes an array of tastelessly tasteful sex scenes, some hallucinatory nightmares that include a squad of worker goons, and a truly bizarre Venetian ball. Eifman does present moments of poignant human conflict with occasionally compelling dancing to demonstrate it, and his show of talent throws many people off guard. If he is gifted how can he be meretricious? Well, he can. Liberace was also gifted and few showmen could produce kitsch as effortlessly as he.

It is fitting that for a showman like Eifman, Anna's downfall would be a simple matter of exalted passion murdered by a cruelly conformist society. Even the train that kills the socially ruined woman is represented not by the quintessential symbol of the heartless industrial monster that Tolstoy used, the steam train, but by a mechanically moving crowd in revolutionary-era working class garb. Anna, like Eifman's Tchaikovsky before her, is victimized for being a creature of too much feeling in a heartless society. It doesn't get much more sentimental than that. It all cooks down to Adultery for Dummies and its sequel: Suicide for Bigger Dummies.

Volume 3, No. 23
June 13, 2005

copyright ©2005 Ann Murphy



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last updated on June 13, 2005