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Eifman Ballet - 30th Anniversary Season

'Red Giselle'

by Catherine Pawlick

June 22, 2007 -- Alexandrinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia

A decade after its initial premiere, Eifman Ballet’s “Red Giselle” continues to uphold the genius with which it first greeted audiences, presenting the darkly tragic tale of the famous Russian ballerina, Olga Spessivtseva, in a realistic macabre mood. As the choreographer notes in the program, this ballet is not a biography of Spessivtseva, but rather “an attempt to illustrate the lives of those talented (artists) who were forced to flee Russia” during the time of the Revolution. Nonetheless, it covers the main events of the ballerina’s life, from her glorious career begun in Petrograd at a ballet barre, to her tortured affair with a KGB agent, her eventual flight to Paris for a new beginning, and her commission to an insane asylum.

The messages in the ballet are numerous. The first scene depicts the idyllic pre-War peace through an almost Degas-like look at the Petrograd ballet studio at the turn of the century. Eifman should be credited here with grabbing the audience’s attention from the outset with this almost Vaseline-lensed snapshot of the Old World: ballerinas in white practice tutus stretch and warm-up before class, one at the barre, another on the floor reading a book in a 180-degree split. It is an entrancing image. Olga Spessivtseva immediately stands out from the rest of the group here, not only physically -- hollowed-out eyes and hair pulled down over her ears – but for the fluid, elegant movements she offers in the classroom. Nina Zmievets danced this role with an uncanny resemblance to the great ballerina herself: impossibly frail limbs belied an amazing flexibility in stable, 180-degree penchée arabesques at more than one turn. The ease with which her partners tossed her overhead into numerous lifts, or dragged her across the floor in various elasticized lines attested to the strong partner-work within Eifman’s troupe, and a finely rehearsed production.

The Teacher, danced with apt reserve and authority by Sergei Volobyuiev, resembles Enrico Cecchetti in his turn of the century studio dress, replete with tie and cane, and takes a fancy to Spessistseva: she, in turn, finds in him a source of solace. We move from the studio to the Mariinsky Theatre, as hinted at by the backdrop of the famous blue and gold curtain. White practice tutus are replaced by gold tutus and tiaras. Here, Eifman employs several clever production shifts. The performers assume classical positions in the dance – attitude promenade and penchée – depicting the epitome of classicism that is the Mariinsky. Then, the stage turns around as the dancers take their curtain calls at the footlights upstage, their backs to us. The effect is one of intimacy: we are suddenly onstage with Spessivtseva, looking out at the audience with her and the rest of the dancers. This small detail adds considerable dimension to Eifman’s work.

The joy and celebration that follow the performance, as the dancers themselves applaud the Ballerina, are quickly darkened by the arrival of the sinister KGB Agent, a Czechist danced with appropriate roughness by Yuri Ananian. He claims Spessivtseva for his own with a serious of malicious movements. This enrages the Teacher and places Spessivtseva in an awkward position. The pas de deux between the Ballerina and the Agent carries hints of violence and rape as he maneuvers her metaphorically with a tight grip on her neck. This is followed by tenderness as the agent covers her shoulders with his own leather jacket. These mixed messages only further confuse the vulnerable, defenseless ballerina, and they leave the stage in a lift that depicts the Agent’s power over the dancer.

The scene that follows explains the shift occurring on a global scale. The destruction of the world of Art at the hands of the revolutionaries is depicted when scores of ballerinas in practice tutus are each dragged onstage by their own individual “Czechist”, their formerly fluid movements becoming robotic, stiff-legged marches with wartime salutes. Eifman then parodies the conception of the USSR with a mass of boot-stomping, ill-mannered, proletariat workers who are impressed with Spessivtseva’s ability to move so eloquently. As the Czechist Agent looks on, her dance shifts from elegant grace to a more banal means of movement that the masses understand. The Teacher, seeing this, is helpless to come to her aid; already, it seems, she has left his world, becoming vulgarized by this new political movement. A brief return to the ballet studio shows that no one will come to Spessivtseva’s aid. She has no friends or supporters. She begs the Teacher for help, but he is “crucified” on the ballet barre by the Czechists, and the ballerina flees, suitcase in hand, with a number of other Russians dressed in white, for Paris.

Paris greets the Ballerina with another set of challenges. Arriving in the glass-domed Conservatory, she feels immediately out of place; but once invited to dance, her Art rewards her with the joy of movement. Spessivtseva clearly feels at home in the arms of her Partner, danced with a slight amount of deliberately feminine finesse by Oleg Gabishev, but he is otherwise engaged with his own lover, a fellow male dancer in the troupe (listed as The Friend in the program), danced by Anton Labunskass. The Friend will have none of the Partner’s dilly-dallying with a female, and engages him in a pas de deux. Labunskass, still a member of the corps de ballet, stood out for his strength and agility in this complex duet with Gabishev that expresses their mutual love. A seething glance at Spessivtseva here, or a hand wrapped around Gabishev’s shoulder there were a few of the small details Labunskass used skillfully and with perfect timing to mark his “territory”. The message was clear: the Partner could only be Spessivtseva’s onstage.

Spessivtseva’s descent into madness accelerates at this point in the ballet, as illustrated by scenes of her offstage, gathering faceless dolls from her suitcase for comfort, and a surreal pas de deux with a floating face. A section from the score of “Evgeny Onegin” adds a quiet pathos to the final scene in which the Ballerina races between a series of shifting mirrors, finally passing through one and looking back out at the audience as the curtain closes.

Anything less than an ideal match for the leading role in “Red Giselle” would cause this production to fall flat. The entire story hinges on the heroine’s ability to depict the tragedy and anguish of Spessivtseva. Zmievets’ untiring expression of both fear and suffering point not only to her deep-seated dramatic gifts, but to her appropriateness in this role. Her acting gifts, combined with a nearly faultless technique, carried her through the ballet, winning her applause even from fellow company members at the final curtain. The audience’s appreciation brought Boris Eifman himself on stage for a curtain call as well.

Despite its size, this small troupe is a gem, packed with talented dancers and emotive performers. “Red Giselle” is a must-see for fans of classical ballet as well as Eifman’s own followers.

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