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By INA HAYBAECK-ROGERS, JUNE 26, 2017

For the company’s 40th Anniversary Tour the Eifman Ballet of St.Petersburg returned to its loyally devoted Los Angeles audience this weekend. As I had never before witnessed at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the spectators did not immediately leave their seats and rudely rush out of the house, frantically pushing to be the first ones on the elevator heading for the parking-structure the moment the ballet was finished. Instead this Friday evening’s crowd remained in their spots to shower Eifman’s company with zealously roaring standing-ovations and seven curtain calls. The exhilarated audience displayed a rare exuberance of awe, when Boris Eifman himself graced the stage to take his bows.
For this engagement, Dance at the Music Center presented Boris Eifman’s compelling ballet Tchaikovsky. Pro et Contra (Premiere: May 24, 2016). Although the original 1993 production of Tchaikovsky had successfully toured worldwide, Eifman felt the creative and intellectual need to re-examine his previous work and update it. “Having been turning to Tchaikovsky’s music for many years, I realized how deep and bottomless the composer’s world was. I came to the understanding of a variety of themes related to his work, his psychic identity, relationship to loved ones. All this was not sufficiently studied by me earlier. I wanted to create a work, in which I could delve deeper into the environment of Tchaikovsky’s creative torment.”, says Eifman, who utilizes Tchaikovsky’s compositions throughout his repertoire such as: Red Giselle, Anna Karenina and Onegin. With today’s updated and revised version, Eifman certainly achieves his goal; he offers a captivating insight into Tchaikovsky’s tragic psychological struggles, which deeply affected the often somber and heartrending tone of his music.
Tchaikovsky. Pro et Contra, as the title “For and Against” suggests, deals with the constant duality and battle within the composer’s inner spirit. Eifman dissects Tchaikovsky’s genius and distraught mind from so many different angles, that in order to grasp the entirety of Eifman’s genius, all of its levels, details, and possible interpretations, one must see this ballet more than once! Eifman addresses Tchaikovsky’s struggles, not only as a composer and as a creative force, but also as a man who painfully cannot reveal his homosexuality in his social surroundings, a man who forces himself – against his better judgement- to marry a sexually driven woman, and a man who must accept charity from a benefactor.

Photo by Evgeny Matveev

As the curtain rises, we find a feverish and weak Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky on his black deathbed. He wears a long white night-gown, which insinuates a Jesus like image. Skillful Eifman choreographically promotes physical positions identified with Jesus on the cross or in Mary’s arms: slightly bent knees with the parallel touching feet, sideways twisted legs, the head hanging down on an angle, arms wide open, but lifeless hands. Tchaikovsky is visibly in distress and haunted, ravished by tormenting ghosts. Eifman’s key character to carry the audience through his psychoanalytical piece of work appears surprisingly: Tchaikovsky’s Double, his alter ego and multi-faced tempter. In chronological order of the composer’s biography, the brilliant storyteller takes us on a turbulent journey, bringing Tchaikovsky’s ballets and opera compositions to life with an exceptional twist. His alter ego transforms unexpectedly into various main characters. Specifically, in scenes from Swan Lake, the Double mutates into Von Rothbart, in scenes from the Nutcracker, he turns out to be Drosselmeyer, in scenes from Onegin he appears as Onegin and lastly in scenes from Queen of Spades he becomes Herman. Two female characters also constantly exchange and interweave with either Tchaikovsky or his Double, at times with both of them simultaneously. Tchaikovsky’s callous wife Antonina Milyukova and his supportive patron Nadezhda Von Meck. Eventually, the storyline takes us back to Tchaikovsky’s bedroom, where he surrenders to his exhaustion and his alter ego gives way to his death, both stripped from all garments, like the moment of birth, a new beginning. “Exhausted composer takes the last step – into immortality,” as Eifman describes this scene in his program-notes. We are left with a startling dramatic display of Tchaikovsky’s tombstone.

Photo by Evgeny Matveev

Interestingly Eifman portrays and clearly displays Tchaikovsky’s ballets, visible through traditional ballet costumes (e.g. white swans and rats), however he chose not to trap himself musically with the corresponding ballet scores. The entire performance unfolds predominantly to Tchaikovsky’s symphonic works and serenades, such as Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op 64. Silence dramatizes moments of loneliness and emptiness, or, as if the composer was unable to hear music in his head in order to create it.

Eifman’s intriguing choreography and theatrical approach finds its completion in the simplicity of the continuously changing set-design by Zinovy Margolin. It abstractly supports the storyline, yet its scarceness juxtaposes itself beautifully into the complexity of nearly non-stop movement and intricate traffic patterns on stage. The inventive usage of the deathbed on wheels, as well as a bright green circular platform, definitely helps reveal some of the most memorable and pivotal moments. The costume designs by Olga Shaishmelashvili enhance the imagery through unpretentious clean lines, solid colors, and gorgeous materials. The lighting design was often very dramatic with isolated top-lights, a white follow-spot, and Eifman’s beloved use of strobe light.
Eifman’s choreography tends to be compared to works by choreographer Maurice Bejart amongst others, and I do admit that one could view the card game section from Queen of Spades as Kurt Joos’ Green Tables meets Bejart’s Bolero. Even so, I would venture to say, that Eifman’s storytelling and theatrical exploration by far surpasses possible copying or plagiarism. Some opponents might express their discord with Eifman’s reproduction of well-known ballet-images. But I would argue, that the thematic basis of a classical ballet composer’s life justifies the choreographer’s choice in this case. This is because it allows the audience to hold onto a familiar story path, in order to comprehend and follow the central and abstract topics at hand.

Photo by Evgeny Matveev

The cultural and historical context of St. Petersburg in 19th century Russia presented itself as an outlet for Eifman to choreograph exuberating dances for his corps de ballet, in which he sublimely infused authentic Russian folk-dance steps and movements. (Stomp-patterns, strong claps and athletic jumps and floor work for the men and the well-known heel-toe for the ladies).
It is a known fact, that Eifman dancers are handpicked by the Maestro as they graduate from the best Russian ballet schools; He has the privilege of getting first choice over other ballet companies. I expected a very high technical level from these exquisite dancers, who have the ability to execute Eifman’s style of movement and acting. He revolutionized ballet by merging, melding, and opposing pure classical vocabulary with modern and contemporary investigation. Central to the portrayal of his characters is the humanization he achieves through his unpredictable sharpness and sudden break of form and release. (The dancer might be on point in a high leg-extension to the side that is geometrically properly placed in one moment, and then collapses into a deep contraction with limp arms in the next). An example of Eifman’s dynamic partner-work in this ballet is the recurring beauty of trios between Tchaikovsky, his Double and other characters. They accentuate the impact of the composer’s mental turmoil, continuously being torn in opposing directions..

The leading principles who danced the main roles this Friday did not disappoint, but brought heightened awareness, that dance can truly be a language, a conveyor of thought. And, if done with complete commitment and passion, as they performed, the story of one man, whose life we probably didn’t give much thought to, can rivet our emotions beyond expectation.
Maria Abashova in the role of Nadezhda Von Meck, displayed nothing but pure aristocracy and contained elegant generosity. Lyubov Andreyeva as Tchaikovsky’s wife literally created a sense of fear for the audience. Her snakelike evilness, especially in her sexual exhibitions, generated disgust.
Having seen a different cast two days later, undoubtedly Tchaikovsky. Pro et Contra holds its own as a masterful ballet. However, Oleg Gabyshev as Tchaikovsky, and Sergey Volobuev as Tchaikovsky’s Double provoke and demand absolute involvement from the audience. Their profound connection and superlative expression deeply touched. Their fearless performance brought a reality onto the stage and to the persona of Tchaikovsky, which left me completely heartbroken. Gabyshev and Volobuev are both absolutely stunning and outrageous male dancers, who personify Eifman’s work.

Boris Eifman has carved a breathtaking multi-layered masterpiece in which he found a genius way to manipulate the audience into never being able to listen to Tchaikovsky’s compositions the same way ever again. We will find ourselves induced to reflect on Tchaikovsky. Pro et Contra and wonder what state of mind the composer might have been in, when notating his music!

(The reviewed performances took place Friday June 24, 2017 and Sunday, June 26, 2017 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. All the music was prerecorded. Eifman Ballet of St.Petersburg is directed by Boris Eifman)

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