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Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg

'The Seagull'

by Kathy Lee Scott

March 17, 2007 -- Orange County Performing Arts Center, Costa Mesa, CA

Whether or not the latest Boris Eifman creation, "The Seagull," is his best, it certainly pleased the matinee audience at its Southern California premiere on March 17, 2007. The audience gave the 45 dancers of the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg and the choreographer several standing ovations.

But a question remained: What was Eifman telling us? Was he saying the struggle to be different and unique is not worth the effort and it's easier to follow the already plowed path? It would seem so from the way he worked the story.

To celebrate his company's 30th year, Eifman chose Anton Chekhov's play, "The Seagull," as the basis for his new full-length ballet. Eifman set the story in a dance studio where an established choreographer, Trigorin (Oleg Markov) reigns supreme. His favored ballerina and consort is Arkadina (Natalia Povorozniuk), whose son, Treplev (Oleg Gabyshev), wants to create new choreography instead of producing the kind that Trigorin favors.

Into the situation comes a corps de ballet dancer, Zarechnaya (Anastassia Sitnikova), who longs to be recognized by Trigorin.

The premiere at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, California, held the audience in awe as the troupe performed to recorded selections by Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Scriabin, as well as electronic music. Some of the latter were reminiscent of horror movie scores with low, reverberating guttural notes.

The ballet begins with Treplev enclosed in an open, box-like space defined by two metal barres. Treplev contorts his body and eventually lengthens the legs of the box into a polygon before he emerges and rolls to the front of the stage.

Set designer Zinovy Margolin deserves a huge acknowledgment for the unique backdrop that curved over the box-like barres. When the black backdrop reared back, the sense of space expanded.

Gabyshev showed off his strength with one-handed moves and flexibility with twisted positions. He also appeared fearless when executing some amazing leaps. Then the scene brightened into a ballet studio where the rest of the cast was introduced.

In the studio, Treplev attempts to show his mother, Arkadina, some of the moves he'd worked out, but she ignores him. He lays on the barre and interferes with her exercises, then plays with her, pretending to jump into her arms. The antics reminded me of how puppies get attention from their mothers.

Trigorin takes control of both the studio and Arkadina. Treplev revolts, mocking the traditional ballet enchaînements Trigorin gives the class.

Only in the studio scenes did the dancers perform established ballet moves. Throughout the rest of the show, they used modern dance gestures combined with their classical technique, to beautiful result.

Arkadina performs an intimate pas de deux with Trigorin, provoking jealousy in the young Zarechnaya. Although Treplev shows an interest in Zarechnaya, the young dancer rebuffs him, longing for Trigorin's attention. However, Treplev continues to pursue her.

An almost audible contented sigh swept through the audience when the young couple kissed at the end of an emotional pas de deux danced to one of Rachmaninoff's well-known themes. We're suckers for romance.

At a festive gathering, the corps de ballet wore suits and long dresses in rich tones of copper, gold and amethyst. When Arkadina arrived in a bright red gown, she clashed with the others but also stood out. Trigorin wore an elegant white suit. Zarechnaya came in a short, mauve outfit that blended with the other corps members, but deemed her a step above.

After several attempts, Treplev persuades his mother to see his work. The piece hides the corps dancers beneath a large piece of fabric, with individuals straining at the material, like a huge undulating worm. It was an eerie sight reminiscent of Pilobolus's antics.

Arkadina falls asleep during the showing and then tries to cover up her faux pas, but Treplev won't be placated.

Later, just when Treplev thinks he's won Zarechnaya, Trigorin shows an interest in the young dancer, and she willingly goes with him.

It seemed a dream sequence when the corps men, dressed in bright outfits with headgear and tennis shoes, danced a hip hop interlude. This led to a humorous scene where the corps ladies are rocking to iPods in their ears and wearing brightly colored overcoats. When Trigorin enters for class, the women snatch off the coats and iPods and assemble in their leotards and tights, polite and attentive.

Zarechnaya thinks she'll be cast as the principal dancer in Trigorin's latest piece, but Arkadina wins the role, supported by the corps de ballet, which makes a pyramid and hauls her to the apex.

Devastated, Zarechnaya leaves to work at a sleazy bar, where Treplev finds her and tries to make her return to ballet. Eventually, she does come back to a happy reunion.

But Treplev steps away from the bright gaiety. As the lights dim and the backdrop again curves over, he inserts himself once more inside the box and pulls the sides back into a rectangle.

Gabyshev showed frustration and desperation as well as determination in his movements. At the end of a particularly anguished solo, he cried out loudly.

Similarly, Sitnikova relayed ecstasy and pain clearly in her dancing. Both young dancers had recently joined the company and display remarkable talents.

Povorozniuk danced the vain, confident ballerina strongly and assuredly. Markov, though frightfully thin, performed magnificently.

Eifman’s corps de ballet was marvelous: individuals but an ensemble.

I thought Eifman would choreograph more traditional ballet moves for the older couple, but perhaps the steps couldn't express as much emotions as using the modern dance canon.

If I have one criticism, it was that the relationship between Treplev and Arkadina was unclear unless you knew the characters from the Chekhov play. At first, it seemed a more romantic than familial relationship.

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