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Eifman Ballet

'Red Giselle'

by Andrew Yew

June 6, 2005 -- Orange County Peforming Arts Center, Costa Mesa, California

The concept of Boris Eifman's "Red Giselle" is promising.  Based on the life of Russian prima ballerina Olga Spessivtseva, the ballet follows her rise to prominence during the Russian Revolution and her fall to madness in Paris.

The story is told by her relationships with the three important men in her life: her "strict and eccentric Teacher" from the Russian imperial theater; the Chekist, a member of the secret police attracted to her who ultimately allows her to leave Russia for Paris; and the Partner, based on her real-life dance partner Serge Lifar, who gives her great artistic success but doesn't return her love.

Famous for her portrayal of the physically and psychically fragile Giselle, Spessivtseva's downfall is portrayed by Eifman in loose parallels to Giselle's descent and death. Unlike Giselle, there is no chance of redemption or hope -- Spessivtseva would languish in an asylum for two decades, presumed dead by the dance world.

The reality of "Red Giselle," however, was disappointing. The dancers looked visibly tired as completions of simple technique and most of the partnering were shaky and sloppy. The corps was ragged and stylistically disunified, as port de bras sprouted like errant weeds. Epaulement of the company was highly exaggerated and gratuitously distracting. The one exception to the many examples of ragged technique was Yuri Smekalov's strong dancing as The Partner. His solid technique however was powerless in the face of trite choreography and unfocused storytelling.

Borrowing from common everyday gestures and incorporating them into ballet vocabulary, and a limited set of self-consciously awkward-looking modern movements, the choreography failed to evoke anything beyond what one superficially saw on stage. For example, the opening scene, which uses the 3rd movement of Tchaikovsky's "Serenade" to accompany a ballet class in St. Petersburg, naturally invites comparison to Balanchine's "Serenade," and the comparison illustrates how Eifman's choreography fails.

Balanchine famously incorporated everyday events in daily class into his "Serenade" -- the girl falling down, the late girl, and the varying number of students attending class each day -- but didn't just insert them as they are into "Serenade." Instead, each event is distilled and used to illustrate the mood or dancing that's already going on. Seeing the intrinsic beauty in these everyday events, Balanchine strips away the superficial layers to show us the essential thing that caught his eye.

Eifman's ballet class is also full of everyday things, like the girl who doesn't listen and dancers stretching and interacting before class. But all of this is placed into his work as they are, and the work never shows us anything more than an everyday, common event. Eifman may have seen something wonderful in that everyday event that he wanted to share, but by presenting us just the event as it is, he doesn't make us see what he wants to see and therefore fails as a choreographer. Imagine if Michelangelo chose to display a block of marble from the quarry instead of his finished David.

This literal, unedited insertion of common gesture and event also makes for choppy, unfocused storytelling as we concentrate on the literal details which are not sufficiently present and too randomly selected to sustain a narrative. For example, why do we need to see the girl who doesn't listen?

Making this situation worse is Eifman's use of individual movements of classical music ripped out and played in isolation of the context of the works they came from. The emotional flow set up by each piece of music is interrupted jarringly and repeatedly as Eifman switches to completely different pieces of music by different composers for each scene. The result is emotional detachment and attendant boredom as there is no buildup and only constant interruption.

However, this doesn't mean a work with such ambitious goals cannot work. For a successful example of a work in this style of an apparent stream-of-consciousness storytelling, see John Neumeier's "Nijinsky," which the Hamburg Ballet brought here last year. Also a biography of a famous dancer gone mad, with a wide palette of music, "Nijinsky" is epic in detail, scope, storytelling, and conception. It is everything "Red Giselle" tries but fails to be.


Edited by Staff.

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