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Eifman Ballet

'Red Giselle' - Gala Concert of Elena Kuzmina

by Catherine Pawlick

July 19, 2008 - Alexandrinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg

Additional red velvet chairs were placed in the aisles of the Alexandrinsky Theatre on Saturday night as fans of Eifman Ballet and followers of Elena Kuzmina filled the theatre for a gala concert in her name.

Kuzmina, now an Honored Artist of Russia and recipient of the country’s coveted Golden Sofit Award, has been a member of Eifman Ballet since she graduated from the Vaganova Academy in 1989. Her name is now commonly associated with the company for which she dances, and – as the program noted – she is known particularly for her role as Olga Spessivtseva in “Red Giselle”, which she danced this evening.

And yet, despite her notoriety, the program quipped that her success and current principal status was achieved not through any “God given talents” but instead through hard work, suffering for her art, and the strife for perfection. I would argue that these are qualities any serious pursuer of ballet holds. Talent is in fact what makes one stand out from the rest in the long run.

Eifman’s initial scene, a ballet studio littered with ballerinas in turn of the century tutus, is genius. Thin ribbons cover hair pulled back into low buns; Pavlova-era thick, floppy tutus grace the slender legs of the Eifman girls; and several of them wear loosely knitted shawls during the warm-up scene.  Oleg Markov, dressed in slim pants and a tie, conveyed the common frustrations of a ballet teacher with frequent use of his cane. And in this setting, Kuzmina appears as Spessivtseva, the dark hollows of her eyes searching the space around her, foreshadowing the fate of her lost soul.

As the Czechist, Oleg Asanyan cut an evil figure in black leather, intent on tearing apart his toy ballerina both literally and figuratively. With brusque movements that jerked her limbs this way and that, he depicted his mal intent. A gratuitous hand clap in response to her short dancing sequence in front of the factory worker crowd made clear his ignorance in all things art-related and his interest in her as more of an object than a human being. Upon this second viewing of the work, the Czechist’s own rather strange sense of anguish when Spessivtseva boards the steamship at the end of Act I surprised me. She barely manages to disentangle herself from his grip before she is boarding the plank to the ship, and meanwhile he writhes on the floor downstage, apparently cursing his poor luck.

The contrast between the Czechist and the kinder, gentler Teacher is made apparent in the scene prior in which the Czechist Men in Black invade the ballet studio, each taking for their own one of the white tutu-clad lovelies, and partnering them by a grip on the neck. As the Teacher is crucified on the ballet barre, the Czechists make off with their treasures.

It is with understood hesitancy that Spessivtseva lands in Paris – alone, scared, and hoping for acceptance. Acceptance she finds in the face of Lifar, danced by Oleg Gabishev, the head of the troupe who leads a class in a unique dance style unknown to the Russian ballerina. Gabishev cuts the perfect figure of a narcissistic head of the troupe, preening in front of the mirror before meeting his close male friend for a brief interlude after hours.

Unfortunately, the appearance of Dmitry Lunyov as The Friend – Lifar’s male companion – dimmed the impressions left by Anton Labunskass in the same role just one year ago. This duet requires a strong man – literally, as he has to lift his male partner overhead – and one with dramatic projection. Lunyov is much softer than Labunskass both in projection and in physicality; at moments he seemed lost on stage. One wished Labunskass had been cast in this special evening instead.

This viewer’s favorite scene of all, however, has become the nightclub scene in Act II. Here an unlisted Andrey Ivanov led Kuzmina through a peppy rendition of “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby”, he in tuxedo and gelled hair, she in a slender 1930s floor-length gown. As the entire corps de ballet – women in shimmering silver and men in tuxedos – danced behind them, the feeling of Hope brought by the new world – Paris – was palpable. Here Ivanov demonstrated the flawless grace of Fred Astaire as he partnered Kuzmina on the dance floor. Now a veteran of the troupe, one nonetheless hopes he might continue to appear on stage in scenes such as this.

At the final curtain, numerous bouquets were delivered to Kuzmina onstage as Eifman himself came out for a bow. That the Eifman Ballet has carved its niche in the ballet world with a specific genre of dance is clear. That ballerinas such as Kuzmina can build their careers in the style is testament not only to the choreographer’s talents but to those of the dancers themselves.

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