It doesn’t take too much analysis to discover that the Russian choreographer Boris Eifman is fascinated by characters living beyond the brink of sanity or obsession. Anna Karenina, Onegin, Giselle, Hamlet, and The Idiot have all been the focus of Eifman’s specialty brand of “psychological ballet” in which dance comments on literary classics, art, and even ballet itself. Last season’s imaginative production of Don Quixote was set as the fantasy of the deranged Don living out his days in an asylum. Call it an artistic decision aimed at make something new out of a worn, pretty story of young love, toreadors and snapping fans. In the latest iteration from Eifman Ballet, Rodin (2011), the central story line focuses on the oppressive and turbulent relationship between the sculptor Rodin, and Camille Claudel, Rodin’s real life muse, whose broken life and smothered artistic identity eventually fetched up in a sanatorium.
With Rodin, Eifman weaves a complex story of reality and remembrance that takes place in a blended past and present, flashing forward and backward at will. The story telling can be, at times, blurred, but more often than not, it bolsters Eifman’s theatrical vision of Rodin as an artist and narcissistic brute. Act I plays more coherently than Act I, in which you sense that Eifman is scrambling to tie up the loose ends of his story. While we encounter Rodin’s long time caretaker and other woman, Rose Beuret, early in Act I, we don’t find out the details of how they met until midway through Act II. That scene, a country harvest with a folk dance theme, is full of dance and high spirits but comes across as an out-of-place contrivance. You feel that Eifman has abandoned the structure his ballet to reference similar scenes culled from 19th century story ballets. The tangential cabaret scene with its frenetic (and fabulous) can can, while evocative of the era, also felt gratuitously placed.
At the heart of Rodin is the pleading acting and gutsy dancing of its central trio of characters played by Oleg Gabyshev, Lyubov Andreyeva and Nina Zmievets. Eifman has invented his own blend of theater and dance which feels unified if often overwrought. The acting and gestural language reaches well beyond mere mime or declamatory pretense; the dancing and partnering take place in a realm of modern, emotionally complex movement that is never simply derivative.The plasticity of the movement itself plays off the gestural language of Rodin and Claudel as they mold their sculptures or shape actual human bodies into sculptural forms. At times, Ms Zmievets, as Rose, channels something of the Graham ethos with her tormented gestures and stark expressionism. Gabyshev turned in a virtuoso performance on Saturday evening full of athleticism and pathos. As Rodin he is on stage for most of both acts and was as affecting dancing alone as he was partnering Zmievets and Andreyeva. As Camille, Andreyeva framed that character’s powerful yet breakable spirit with a poignant performance that believably led you from innocence to despair.
Rather than searching the dark corners of classical music to support the story, Eifman has turned mostly to mining orchestral chestnuts from French masters including Saint-Saens, Debussy, Massenet, Ravel and Satie. In one pas de deux for Gabyshev and Andreyeva, the intimate, Clair de Lune morphs effectively into a scene for Rose alone, set against one of Satie’s Gnossiennes. The ballet begins and ends with a scene from the asylum. In both, and clasping hands, the inmates circle in a bleak dance. At the conclusion Eifman sets the movement against Massenet’s Thais Meditation, making a twisted statement out of music that bears little resemblance to the scene at hand. The juxtaposition was perhaps more provocative than explanatory. In that scene Camille hesitantly offers her hand, indecisively at first, but finally joining them. In the end she seems to say, I am choosing this life, choosing to be shut away for an eternity.
Intense theatricality characterizes all of Eifman’s ballets. Particular to this production were the human sculptures that referenced actual works by both Rodin and Claudel. Eifman works with a production as an integrated whole, not simply dancing set off by effects and a perfunctory mise en scene. In that sense, he shares a history with Béjart, Preljocaj, Maillot, Bourne and others working within the contexts of sprawling stories and encompassing visions of what a big ballet should look like. On Saturday the results were predictably rich but also, extreme. The audience offered a thronging approval.
(The reviewed performance took place on May 4th, 2013 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.The music was was prerecorded. The performances were not identified. For a review of Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg’s Don Quixote at Segerstrom Center.