Opening night gala and “The Seagull”
Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg
City Center
April 13 and April 21, 2007

by Susan Reiter
copyright © 2007 by Susan Reiter

W Would Boris Eifman be more suited to choreographing for Broadway or Cirque du Soleil? These options occurred as nearly uninterrupted 45 minutes of busy, angst-ridden excerpts from his longer works spilled across the stage. In-your-face, often robotic ensemble numbers alternated with the nearly contortionist, angst-ridden partnering that is his trademark. This confusing and disjointed display made up the second half of this atypical Eifman evening seemed to test the patience of even his die-hard fans. Applause was hesitant until the final bows, when the man himself made his inevitable grand entrance from upstage center and seemed to command an intense audience reaction as he strode downstage.

Perhaps for a loyalist, the sequence would have come across as a “greatest hits” display, but to this taste, it confirmed Eifman’s affinity for depicting his heroes and heroines as victims of oppression (social, if not political) and his ensembles as joyless, assaultive formations. Indeed, the giddy exuberance with which the dancers tore into the encore, a humorous gluttony scene from “Don Juan and Moliere,” with Eifman seated at the head of the table and the dancers seeming to be his eager, unruly children, came as a relief. Until that moment, the dancers had registered so little joy that one wondered whether for them, performing was a chore rather than a calling.

Not that the 45 members of the company aren’t impressive, in their quirky, Eifmanesque way, with their impossible stretchiness and cool aplomb in the most awkward and distorted positions. The navigate tricky, often dangerous-looking partnering maneuvers fearlessly, and seem to have the most well-oiled knees on any stage.

The program opened with a novelty — the first work not by Eifman to enter the company’s repertory. “Cassandra,” by Nikita Dmitrievsky, was hardly an idea choice to launch an evening, given its flat dramaturgy and languid pacing. Set to various (unidentified) pieces by Gustav Holst, costumes in simple tunics of mostly white and some black, it featured lots of shadowy lighting and the occasional pale Martha Graham allusion, and twisty partnering that recalled vintage Jiri Kylian. Dmitrievsky is a young Russian who started out at the Bolshoi school but began exploring more contemporary dance forms, and has had considerable international experience. Presumably Eifman is trying to do his bit to encourage the younger generation, but while his own works showcase what makes his dancers daring and distinctive, this one neutralized them and was far too muted dramatically for the powerful mythic associations it was meant to evoke.

During the second week of the Eifman Ballet’s City Center season (the final stop on a national tour that marks its 30th anniversary) offered the main event — The Seagull. Eifman’s latest full-evening work offering his own twist on a classic piece of literature (or in this case, drama). Just as John Neumeier switched the métier of the writer Aschenbach in his “Death in Venice” to that of a choreographer, Eifman turns the playwrights of Chekhov’s masterwork — the lauded, successful Trigorin and the upstart, would-be innovator Treplev — into choreographers. This does make one wonder, why the need for all this self-referential material subject matter — unless the choreographers of these works feel no one will question why the people on stage are dancing if the characters they portray are dancers and choreographers. But, just was with the spate of Broadway musicals portraying — and spoofing — the world of Broadway musicals, this can all become too self-referential and hermetic.

“The Seagull” follows the usual Eifman methodology. In his favor, he keeps his dramatic ballets to a tight two-act, two-hour format, and makes excellent use of scenic effects that are imposing yet not overbearing. And once again he is about as subtle as a sledgehammer in portraying emotions and conveying messages. From the very first moment, we know that Treplev (the personable and amazingly limber Dmitri Fisher) is the hero we’re supposed to identify with and root for. He’s a renegade in tank top and jeans, staying in that rebel-hero uniform throughout, and he’s Tortured and Misunderstood, not to mention Alienated from the society (i.e. ballet company) he inhabits. We first seem him curled up inside a cube-shaped metal frame, struggling and yearning to break free as somber, slow piano arpeggios are heard. (The score, Eifman’s usual assemblage, consists of Scriabin and Rachmaninoff selections with some contemporary sound score bits interspersed.)

Treplev dreams of what is presumably meant to be brave new advances for ballet, and chafes under the regime of severe, permanently angry director/choreographer, Trigorin (Yuri Smekalov). In his numerous solo passages, Fisher lurches ominously and drags himself along the ground in pretzeled positions, and envisions scenes from the ballets that he longs to create. Unfortunately, these do not exactly indicate that he is the savior of ballet. A recurring scene is one with billowing white stretch fabric with bodies creating wave-like lumps or rolling out from under it, as smoke billows around it. Another brief scene is, incongruously, a punchy hip-hop number performed by sporty guys in bright colored oversize sweatshirts, which at least livens things up.

While his career frustrations play out, Treplev agonizes through tortured relationships with his mother, the sleek, leading ballerina Arkadina (Nina Zmievets, whose dark intensity is somewhat reminiscent of Marcia Haydee), makes a play for the not-so-innocent up-and coming young company member Zarechnaya (Maria Abashova) — seeing in her not only a romantic partner but the potential muse for his choreography — who unfortunately is also courted by the powerful and persuasive Trigorin. That of course creates problems for Trigorin’s previously established liaison with Arkadina. Yes, once again Eifman has managed to boil the essence of his ballet to problems between two men and two women, and to include the obligatory male duet — in this case a confrontational power struggle — in which the men coil their long limbs and lash around intensely to little dramatic effect.

Much of the music Eifman has selected is in minor keys, and only one of the ensemble dance scenes (presumably we are seeing the troupe either in performance or rehearsal) has any sprightliness and zest to it. Many have the dancers in pale grey leotards moving through fluid, vapid sequences. Much of the time, Eifman makes the stage look annoyingly busy, but all the hyperactivity is off-putting rather than engrossing.

Eifman includes a pretentious program note making the case for his approach, as if daring us not to appreciate the work’s profundity. Referring to himself in the first person plural ( the royal “we”) he claims, “The issues of the development of art, the search for new forms, true and deceptive values, love and career are expressed with particular sharpness in out production.” He no doubt intended to these themes to resonate through the choreography, but the extremes of intensity and anguish in which his characters wallow tend to reduce much of what goes into pulpy generic scenes of frustration. The generational conflicts that Chekhov’s characters represent, and that remain part of Eifman’s scenario, can come through clearly when the play is cast with actors of appropriate age (the hearty, womanly Meryl Streep and the tremulous Natalie Portman provided the right contrast in Mike Nichols’ 2001 New York production). But Eifman’s dancers, however bold, tireless and pliable as they are, all come across as more or less the same age. But Eifman clearly feels no worry about co-opting a theatrical classic known for its subtle insights and poignant relationships. “A closer look reveals the imperishable ties between the ballet’s protagonists and the Chekhov play,” his program note asserts, as if daring us to differ.

Volume 5, No. 16
April 23, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Susan Reiter

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