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Eifman Ballet

'Brothers Karamazov'

by Catherine Pawlick

12 July 2008 --- Alexandrinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia

One cannot possibly expect a two-act ballet to thoroughly represent all the details in a novel as rich in metaphor and profuse in metaphysical theme as “The Brothers Karamazov”. Those looking for a verbatim representation of said tome in Boris Eifman’s ballet of the same name would be amiss to expect it. However, the ballet itself is a work of genius for accurately rendering into movement some of the great author’s major themes, and all this in under two hours of dancing time.

Last performed in the States in 2002, the ballet is rarely performed even in Eifman’s home base, but Saturday night’s performance brought the choreographer himself on stage to numerous “bravos” and several standing audience members in the sold out hall.

To take a subject as complex as “Brothers Karamazov” and transform it into wordless movement is a daunting undertaking for any choreographer. Eifman does so using his own idiom and score. Set to a mix of recorded music including pieces from Rachmaninoff and Mussorgsky as well as words spoken to the overture of Wagner’s Tannhauser in Act II, “Karamazov” expresses everything from Alexei’s search for soulful purity to Ivan’s nihilistic philosophy, and Fyodor Pavlovich’s hedonistic lifestyle.

The latter, danced tonight by veteran Eifman member Andrey Ivanov, is depicted as the ballet opens by an orgy of women in fleshy white unitards surrounding him on all sides. Ivanov’s quick movements and mastery of Eifman’s style lent authenticity to his rendition of this role. When Fyodor’s shredded shirt is tugged at by each of his three sons, they each become entangled (both physically and metaphorically) in the web of their father’s sinfulness. Such is the cleverness of Eifman’s choreography to depict his characters’ psychology and emotions.

As always, that choreography extends beyond the classical paradigm into post-modern movement, never succumbing to timidity: sweeping lifts, boldly twisted limbs, bodies thrown to the ground, plenty of second position pliés, and even movements suggestive of various sexual acts lend a humanity to the ballet that you won’t find in any “Swan Lake”.

Numerous pas de deux take place depicting the relationship between the characters. Anastasia Sitnikova danced beautifully as Katerina Ivanova (who is in love with both brother Dmitry, danced by Oleg Gabishev and brother Ivan, danced by Sergey Volubiev). A lovely blonde with amazingly chiseled insteps, Sitnikova’s masterful fluidity and emotional expressiveness brought a gentle femininity to her role.

Grushenka, danced by the brunette Ekaterina Zhigalova, who ignites a rivalry between Dmitry and father Fyodor, shone less brightly than Sitnikova, but nonetheless danced adequately in her role.

The murder of Fyodor Pavlovich takes place after a complex pas de trois: father, son, and a six-legged table that is used alternately to carry or barricade off the dancers from each other. Following Dmitry’s prison sentence, we see the corps de ballet of skeletal-like prisoners in beige rags dance like hungry animals with outspread fingers pawing at the air. Is this the chaos of the uninformed masses? The depths of human animalism?

The soul savior in the ballet, the only person seeking salvation amongst so much hellish debauchery, is of course Alexei, who eschews drink and women in favor of higher pursuits. Ilya Osipova danced this key role on Saturday night with spiritual angst and movements that alternated crisp accuracy and melting lyricism. Even Alexei, however, cannot escape his family’s curse, and his character is at one point besieged by an epileptic seizure after a brief sexual encounter – involving a simple kiss – with one of the ladies on stage. This struggle for Good amidst unconquerable and ever-present Evil is paramount to the novel, and one of the many themes revisited in numerous scenes throughout the ballet.

In short, “Karamazov” is a gem. If not as evolved as some of Eifman’s more recent works, it nonetheless holds a freshness in approach that may not be as present in later works where his style is more engrained. The themes in “Karamazov” are universal, especially so in 2008, themes that citizens of some nations in particular may find applicable, greed and debauchery (the War for Oil; America’s mortgage crisis, anyone?) among them. History shows us that human beings don’t learn from their mistakes; plenty of literary examples prove this point. Basic ethics, where they remain, if they remain, hold the way to ultimate salvation or, in common patois, a life lived on principle that adheres to virtuosity and correctness – moderation, hard work, and honesty in all things, to name a few. If nothing else, “Karamazov” – both the novel and the ballet – forces us to evaluate our own lives against a measure of objective values. Do yours stand up?

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