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Eifman Ballet - 30th Anniversary Season

'Chaika' ('The Seagull')

by Catherine Pawlick

June 23, 2007 -- Alexandrinsky Theatre, Russia

Even more so than with his exquisite “Red Giselle”, Boris Eifman’s “Chaika”, or “The Seagull”, is a departure from the eponymous classical novel on which it is based, but only in form. With yet another glimpse at the philosophical ideas behind a major historical work, Eifman here uses his ballet as the jumping ground from which to explore themes such as the development of art, the search for new forms, love, and career, all in a new setting: that of the ballet studio.

Before sitting down to watch this piece, viewers unfamiliar with the Chekov work would be wise to briefly study the background in order to understand the events transpiring on stage. Eifman has taken a complex plot, boiled it down and transposed it. Therefore, some prior knowledge is paramount in order to follow the libretto.

This ballet utilizes four main characters from the book, adjusting each to fit the world of dance. Mme. Arkadina, a renowned actress in the novel, is here a successful ballerina in love with the writer Trigorin, here a choreographer of note. Arkadina's son, Konstantin Treplev, who in the novel is a young aspiring writer, is here a budding young choreographer who seeks his mother’s approval. He is in love with aspiring actress Nina Zarechnaya, here a young dancer in competition for Arkadina's position within the studio, and for the attentions of both Treplev and Trigorin.

The “seagull” theme itself opens the ballet when Konstantin, danced by Oleg Gabishev with endless focus and abandon, appears trapped inside a metal frame whose sides expand into various angles as he pushes them forth. The image of the caged bird, the artist struggling to reach beyond form, to fly, is an apt metaphor. Treplev’s artistic creations, which later include a silly performance by dancers in ghostlike grey spacesuit unitards and a tunnel of fabric under from which they protrude, replaces the character’s unsuccessful outdoor play in the novel. One sees that his attempts to create new forms fall flat: the results are somewhat frightening, perhaps comical, but never inspiring. Treplev repeatedly turns to his mother for reassurance, love and attention – seen mostly as Gabishev races to her with violent, angular steps and poses, void of intuitive flow or specific meaning. Here we see a familial tug-of war: Arkadina’s self-absorption --depicted aptly as Nina Zmievets primps and fawns in front of a mirror, demanding adulation from everyone and no one at once – overshadowing the Oedipal relationship with her son which in turn interrupts, or is interrupted by, interludes with her own lover, of whom Treplev is clearly jealous. The overall confusion in this irreconcilable love triangle manifests itself in a series of pas de deux that shift into pas de trois until one or more characters disappear.

As Trigorin, Yuri Smelakov is the suave, good-looking choreographer whose luck in movement translates to luck in relationships. Arkadina wants him. So does the younger Nina Zarechnaya. No sooner does he complete one pas de deux than he’s interrupted with the other lady insisting on his attentions. Mostly, Arkadina succeeds – the impression one has is of Zmievets as the older, more accomplished woman, more skilled at drawing a young attractive male into her lair. After one solo, she’s raised three-people high in a human tower, only to wave down at Smelakov, as if to say “See me, love me!” interrupting an interlude with Zarechnaya that never does begin. Zarechnaya thus is left to resort to the childlike affections of Treplev who, as Gabishev played him, seemed able to distract her temporarily, but never more than this.

Yuri Smelakov himself is one of the best kept secrets in Russian ballet. From the dance studio scenes in Act I where he leads the crowd in curious step combinations, to his Act II solo, Smelakov gives a 200% physical and emotional energy output to this role. Blessed with a well-proportioned body, blonde locks and an uncanny ability to emote, he is one of the strongest principals in Eifman’s troupe; indeed, the solo in this ballet was created specifically for him.

As Zarechnaya, the beautiful Maria Abashova offered a spellbinding performance with her strength and finesse. Blessed with a seemingly unlimited range of motion (as is the case with all Eifman females, it seems) inside a lean, pre-teen body without the cut muscles or knobby joints of some of her older counterparts, she reminds one of the rising star Natalia Osipova, equally self-assured in her movements, with a competitive technique and secure acting ability. She repeatedly stole the spotlight: she is simply mesmerizing.

The rest of the Eifman dancers’ gumby-like joints and distorted, angular shapes did their job at conveying anguish, frustration and despair throughout “Chaika” too. The exception to the overall “look” of the ballet appears only in the form of a brief hip-hop scene at the end of Act I which the troupe pulls off with verve and proves their capabilities to perform other dance styles.

At the end of the evening, things have shifted slightly. Zarechnaya has found work in a night club that she cares not to explain to Treplev; Arkadina is still drowning in narcissism, and Trigorin continues his road to fame via the dance. Poor Treplev, however, returns to his metal cage of his own will, closing the angular frame around himself, retreating into his own world of tortured thought. It seems then, that we’ve just caught a glimpse of these four lives, but the close of the curtain resolves nothing: such problems are eternal.

“Chaika” is performed to a range of Rachmaninoff’s famous pieces, including the Variations on a Theme of Paganini, the Second Symphony, several quartets, a scherzo and elegy among others, all of which are interspersed with electronic sound effects. This contrast between idyllic classical and funky modern (including the hip-hop beat) music parallels Eifman’s production, underlining his contemporary translation of a timeless novel. For the onslaught of new forms or visual information via unique movement, “Chaika” is a bit exhausting upon first view, but as these images are recalled to memory later, one realizes that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and a second viewing seems paramount.

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