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The Eifman Ballet

'Red Giselle'

by Juliet Neidish

April 14, 2007 -- New York City Center, NYC

Boris Eifman is a brilliant craftsman of lush and complete dance theater.  His artistry, displayed in his unique oeuvre, is as dazzling for its contemporary qualities as it is rooted in the power of the historical tradition of 19th-century classical ballet.  Eifman’s work gives us a chance to experience this all-but-forgotten theatrical form in its manifold complexity. 

For the most part, classical ballet today has come to be about dancers mastering a choreography that has been passed down through time.  It highlights the solo, pas de deux and corps de ballet formations.  In the so-called “story ballets”, the story is inferred fairly passively through program notes, props and some minimal mime that has managed to remain incorporated in the choreography.  But historically, the dancing was just one part of the genre of classical ballet which evolved from Baroque spectacle as music, dance, theater and stage effect slowly found their way together to produce an exhilarating, sumptuous and multi-faceted theatrical experience.  Eifman’s work makes top-notch use of all these elements in balance and vibrancy and even goes one step further. 

Rather than create close reconstructions of traditional ballets like the Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet does so well, Eifman adds all manner of contemporary movement to the classical format thus recreating the traditional experience for his audience through an aesthetic that is updated for today’s eye.  His work revives, but also comments on, a tradition whose hybrid character is, paradoxically, no longer known to us.

The 45-member Boris Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg, celebrating its 30th anniversary with a 3-week season at City Center in New York City, has a noteworthy history.  Eifman managed to weather censorship and political threats made against his work during the Soviet regime of the 1970’s.  This included being invited by his government to leave when the door was briefly opened to allow Russian Jews to emigrate.  Though Eifman chose to stay in the Soviet Union, he explains that he decided to create “The Master and Margarita”, a ballet about state mind-control, based on the book by Bulgakov, as an ultimate provocation.  However, by the time the piece was completed, perestroika was beginning to take root.  Much to his surprise, the choreography that he assumed would end his career was instead celebrated as a representation of the “new Russia”.  Timing was on his side and his company was given support. 

Since the company’s inception in 1977, Eifman has broken ground choreographically and has developed a distinctive signature style.  In Russia he introduced non-traditional music to his ballets, Pink Floyd for example, and has infused his works with a wide variety of movement styles and techniques, such as jazz, modern, circus, and acting.  The Eifman Ballet first began touring the United States in 1996.  This anniversary season has offered New York audiences a rare chance to choose from a numerous selection of repertory, all full-length ballets except for the opening night gala of excerpts.  

The City Center run began with “Red Giselle” (1977), a wonderful layering of the life of Olga Spessivtseva, the early 20th-century prima ballerina famous for her interpretation of  the title role in the 19th-century Coralli ballet “Giselle” and of the quintessential Romantic era ballet itself.  Eifman’s ballet explores parallels between “Giselle’s” heroine and Spessivtseva, both of whose lives descended tragically into madness.  

From the moment the curtain opens, Eifman’s lively staging and theatrical bravura propel the audience into his world.  We watch a 19th-century ballet class in progress, with female dancers in beautiful white, period dance attire.  If you know your dance history, you will immediately pick out the dancer playing Spessivtseva by her classically renowned hairstyle: low bun with hair combed over her ears.  If not, Eifman’s skill at theatrical storytelling will make it quite clear by the dance master’s praise and attention to the fledgling dancer.

The stunning set comprised of ballet class mirrors, barres, and even a small raked stage adorned with mini- footlights, is host to a stage filled with beautiful ballet dancers synchronously following their warm-up.  Eifman regales us with a barrage of laugh-out-loud dance jokes, in the spirit of the company Les Ballets Trocodero de Monte Carlo, which hit us, one right after another.  We see several dancers wobbling as they attempt to find their center, one long-legged ballerina completely engrossed in reading a book while stretched in a full, 180-degree split on the floor, and a dancer who enters like a whirlwind, jogging madly around the barres as the others continue to train, unfazed.  Some dancers fall from exhaustion, but not before Eifman manages, despite all the brouhaha, to make a clear choreographic reference to Balanchine’s “Serenade” as this section is choreographed to the Tchaikovsky score used so famously by Balanchine. 

Besides Tchaikovsky, Eifman’s musical selections also include Bizet and Schnittke.  He does give us a brief section of the famous Adolphe Adam theme from “Giselle”, dramatically timed to perfection, allowing us a true theatrical catharsis.  The visually sumptuous and very alive opening scene is the first of many in this 2-hour plus ballet.   Each that follows has multiple foci, brimming with stunning costumes, sensuous lighting, complex narrative, and innovative beautifully danced choreography.  This adds up to a ballet that is by turns humorous, poignant and dramatic.   As the piece progresses, we observe Spessivtseva dealing with a domineering and politically-charged relationship, an idealistic dance master, the sad reality of her emigration from Russia, the continuation of her exalted career in Paris, and the painful unrequited love and despair far away from home, all of which eventually lead to her madness.  Eifman communicates these specific plot developments through his particular brand of choreographic stylization. 

Although his choreographic base is ballet, he understands something about the release of the body away from the codification of ballet technique and toward a more naturally expressive quality that when intertwined with the familiar expectations of ballet, produces an unexpected and ultimately alive and tactile element to our theatrical experience.  For example, he will end a traditionally balletic section by turning the ballerina around to reveal and highlight the natural bends of the exposed skin of her bare back not covered by her richly ornate tutu.  Or, he will have a dancer go from a releve on point, to a totally limp foot, all in one move.  He’ll seamlessly contrast traditional ballet mime with more angular, declarative expressive gesture.  Eifman makes use of any and all movement styles at will, but his special gift is that these appropriations are woven into an evolving theatrical whole and are used to express his vision rather than serve as gratuitous pilfering or mere splashy effect. 

Besides the wedding of genres within the choreographic structure, Eifman also presents whole sections that are made solely from a dance form other than ballet.  In “Red Giselle”, for example, the scene at the Parisian nightclub is a grand presentation of sensuous social dances of the period.  The company members are masters at different styles and never look like ballet dancers “trying” to do an alien genre.  Another Eifman forte is the powerful impact of his mass action scenes.  In “Red Giselle” one scene is used to communicate the overwhelming power of a mob of revolutionaries to signify the change in political regime.  The group packs the stage executing individual movement motives and yet they accost the audience bringing the feeling that they are ignited as one explosive unit.  In this particular scene, Eifman seems to have tapped into both the mass dances of Mary Wigman and Rudolf Laban as well as the flavor of Kurt Jooss.    

Eifman leaves no stage space unexplored.  Choreography on the floor, endemic to modern dance, not ballet, is as readily prevalent as is his creative use of airspace.  At one point, Eifman designs a pyramid made of dancers not unlike such trademarks of cheerleading.  Eifman’s creativity seems endless.  I have never seen until now, a ballet master crucified on a ballet barre!  I also will not easily forget the ingenious and surrealistic aura of one of Spessivtseva’s final stage moments when in a catatonic state of madness, she dances a pas de deux with a stark white dismembered head which floats along a black backdrop.  This seems to be an Eifman reinvention of Indonesian shadow puppetry. 

Of course, no “Giselle” would be complete without a mad scene.  Eifman gives us three.  We are witness to Spessivtseva’s preliminary and later full- blown dance of madness as well as her performance of the famous mad scene from “Giselle”, which includes a mock-up of the traditional stage set from the famous ballet.  

I’m sorry that there are critics, for example, here in New York City, who, in their desire to maintain a specific aesthetic position on dance, do not choose to experience or review the works of certain choreographers for what their work is about.  I see Eifman as a creator of fully conceived, theatrical spectacle that excites, entertains, tells or retells stories of human struggle and passion, and accomplishes this on a level of the highest skill.  This is exactly what classical ballet was historically about.  I understand that critics may have personal aesthetic tastes that are reflected in the body of their reviews.  But clearly for quite some time now, it’s been the modernist aesthetic of Balanchine, who pulled choreography out of its theatrical and psychological framework with beauty and originality, to which all other ballet has been compared. 

However, the cabalistic malign and scoff awarded to choreographers who master a fully realized vision that is at odds with and therefore could possibly compete with a Balanchinian aesthetic is transparent, I feel, and displays a stubborn conservatism in its complete denial that there could be something else worthwhile.  William Forsythe has been a choreographer treated as such in the US, and so it is with Eifman.  In Eifman’s case, he is not only steeped in a pre-Balanchine aesthetic, but his works are actually composed from a wealth of contemporary movement elements.  Thus he is also significantly post-Balanchine as well.  This mixing of genres invites even more skepticism due to comparisons to the so-called purity of the Balanchine oeuvre.  Is it possible that some critics writing today have forgotten that classical ballet has always been a multi-layered theatrical event, a Gesamtkunstwerk of sorts, and not merely a platform to admire the execution of beautiful dance steps? And, is it not strange that Eifman who is no longer suspect or censored in his own country is still criticized and misrepresented here?                 

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