Boris Eifman is a choreographer critics love to hate and audiences simply love. In fact, in his 2011 opus, Rodin, detailing the loves of the great French sculptor who chiseled the art form into the modern age, Eifman creates a gaggle of critics, clad in prim green suits carrying crimson notebooks and they maneuver around the stage and examples of the Rodin works recreated with living, breathing dancers. It’s as much a statement on Rodin’s relationship with the establishment art world critics as it is of Eifman’s. Audiences oohh, ahhh and gasp at the vivid stage pictures, the incomparable athleticism and unparalleled physicality of the troupe of 30 or so dancers in his self-named Eifman Ballet. He brought his St. Petersburg company to the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater Friday night for a quick, weekend run. But what do the gaggles of critics say? Not much effusive praise. There’s nothing subtle about an Eifman ballet and that rubs us in the critical world the wrong way. Eifman knows it and puts it out there, smartly smug about his stature and popularity, if not his critical acclaim. He puts critics in their place with no worry, and leave all his flamboyant drama and sturm und drang for audiences to drink in with pleasure.
Born in Siberia where his Jewish parents had been exiled, Eifman graduated from the ballet and choreographic school of the Leningrad Conservatory and founded his own independent company in 1977, when Soviet ballet was a product and property of the state. Eifman was bold enough to hang out his own flag yet to mostly work within the strictures of the communist system creating a contemporary genre that looks like an amalgamation of Yuri Grigorovich’s bombastic government approved works for the Bolshoi and those late 20th century extravaganzas by French Belgian Maurice Bejart and his Ballet of the Twentieth Century, along with early 20th century Ballets Russes touches dabbed into the eclectic mix.
Eifman’s company been treading into hyper kinetic and dramatic waters with “oh, so Russian” high strung pieces for more than three decades. His wheelhouse is remaking literary classics or artistic biographies in what he calls “the language of movement.” His lurid bio-ballet Tchaikovsky made a local stop in the District in 2003. Eifman’s latest, Rodin, examines the fraught artistic and love lives of French groundbreaking sculptor Auguste Rodin, his longtime companion, Rose Beuret, and his artistic muse and fellow artist Camille Claudel.
The stormy passionate relationship between Rodin and Claudel is the centerpiece of the ballet and Eifman pulls out all the stops with sensuous, stylized pas de deux between the couple, as well as moments of discord, artistic creativity and all around high drama.
There’s much to admire in the excess Eifman captures to tell this tragic tale – a love triangle, as Shakespeare already taught us, always ends in tragedy. And this ballet starts there: in an insane asylum, where a bevy of beautiful but crazy young women twitch, fling, grope and smile at the audience with discomfiting sweetness. These are sex kittens not gone wild but gone mad. The stark set, designed by Zinovy Margolin, is a stark series of beams and scaffolds that slash the stage in diagonals and a mobile platform on which models and living sculptures in the guise of dancers pose and get manipulated.
Appropriating an eclectic collection of composers ranging from Saint Saens to Massenet to Ravel, Debussy, and Satie, the recorded score proves to be a mashup of comfortably recognizable classics for Eifman to dissect and deconstruct choreographically in his dramatic solo dance monologues or in upbeat group numbers, including a high-kicking can-can, that gaggle of prim critics, and even – a la Giselle – a grape harvest festival, as suitable for Broadway as the ballet stage.
Eifman’s exceedingly articulate dancers demonstrate the results of years of impeccable Russian Vaganova training: high arches, limber backs, legs that stretch beyond human capacity, shoulders and torsos on the men that put Ryan Gosling to shame and a high-level of dramatic expression would go down well with scenery chewing Stanislavski method actors. The physical gifts of these dancers are simply astonishing to observe; but the women, in particular, have that emaciated, rib-protruding look that thankfully has mostly gone out of style in the Western ballet world. Oh, how I would like to give some of those women a sandwich.
The true protagonist of Rodin, is not, of course, the master sculptor but his consort Camille. Though Rodin’s life partner was Rose Beuret, Eifman paints her as the staunch, repressed woman at home, as opposed to the free spirited and creative Claudel, who allows her artist/lover to mold her body, and her soul giving her power and even her artistry over to him. Even Olga Shaishmelashvili’s costumes demonstrate the stark differences between the women: Rose in Victorian long-sleeved, high-necked ankle-length dresses and Camille often in white slips, or, in the studio, in loose pants and other artsy attire.
In Eifman’s choreographic universe both women are hyperkinetic, hyper stretched and on Friday night Lyuov Andreyeva as Camille was inhumanly flexible. Gaunt, tall Oleg Gabyshev portraying Rodin molded her body like clay into pretzel or Gumby-like contortions and his facial contortions matched the choreographic ones. And Yulia Manjeles as Rose, equally overstretched, found Joan Crawford drama in portraying her rejection and restraint. But in Eifman’s world, there’s no real sympathy for these women. It seems they must suffer not for their own art but for their love of an imperfect and single-minded man. I wonder how Martha Graham, with her powerful woman-centric approach to the classics would have re-told this story. Absolutely without the misogynistic undertones Eifman suggests – from those sex-up up but mad insane asylum inhabitants to the often nearly degrading crotch views he (and many other male contemporary ballet choreographers) favors for his two lead women.
What proved most interesting in this Eifman oeuvre – and much of his choreographic output is fully theatricalized in the most heightened sense – is his quoting of the Rodin sculptures. His dancers took easily to the challenge of shaping their bodies with an uninhibited plastique into stage pictures suggesting works like “The Age of Bronze,” “The Gates of Hell” and, even, I think, “The Burghers of Calais” (of which we have a version here at the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden). There were also actual sculptures, a sculpey like model that Claudel manipulated, a pair of lovely cupped hands Rodin sculpted that appeared a few times. Then, of course, that passionate marbleized “The Kiss,” on stage came to life in many a pas de deux between Claudel and Rodin, for this is, first and foremost, a ballet of unbridled passion. The love story is tragic – ending, Nijinsky-like, with Claudel broken from her affair with Rodin and committed to an insane asylum.
There are no small gestures, no subtleties in an Eifman ballet. And audiences love the grandeur, the bombast, the emotive excess of it all. It reeks of Russian melodrama and that Russian mindset that, too, there are no happy endings – in art or in life. And, alas, Claudel, who was manipulated, degraded, sexualized and never given her own artistic due, is the one who suffers most.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes plus a 15-minute intermission.
Ardani Artists presents: Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg: ‘Rodin’ plays tonight at 8 PM and tomorrow at 2:30 PM in The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or purchase them here and here.
Russia’s Ballet to Revive Turbulent Life of Sculptor Rodin for US Audience on Sputnik News.