When most Westerners think of Russian ballet, the two words that generally come to mind are "Bolshoi" and "Kirov," the two great companies that epitomize Russia's long and illustrious ballet history. But move over tradition - two words that soon may be synonymous with Russian ballet are "Boris Eifman."
Over the past two decades, Eifman has emerged as one of the most important and strikingly innovative choreographers in the ballet world. As his superb company, the Eifman Ballet, slowly makes its way around the globe, more and more dance lovers will get to experience that firsthand.
The Eifman Ballet currently is in the midst of its first United States tour. Though the company made a brief visit to San Antonio 10 years ago, its first major American appearance was just two years ago at New York's City Center, where it has been named a constituent company - along with Paul Taylor Dance Company, American Ballet Theatre, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater - a rare honor for a company steadfastly committed to St. Petersburg, Russia. It opened in Boston March 24, and will hit eight other cities over the next month and a half (plus a return to Boston, April 21-22, at The Wang Theatre), bringing with it three full-length ballets and two one-acts.
From the Boston opener, "Tchaikovsky: The Mystery of Life and Death," it is easy to see why Eifman is so hot. The choreographer blends the elegance and clarity of classical technique with the vigor and athleticism of modern dance. It is not only substantive, well-crafted, and imaginative choreography, it is compelling theater, uniting psychological portraits with stunning imagery.
"Tchaikovsky" is a searing portrayal of the composer as a tormented soul, split by a dual persona - the dashing, beloved composer he presents in public, and his true private self, terrified lest his homosexuality become public knowledge. Eifman beautifully materializes that conflict by casting two dancers as Tchaikovsky and his alter ego, and the work unfolds as a long duet between the two, interrupted by the other important people and events that shaped his life. The work is heavily symbolic and a little over the top at times, but it is completely engaging and vividly memorable.
With his current company of 44 dancers, including five superb soloists - Albert Galichanin, Igor Markov, Vera Arbuzova, Yelena Kuzmina, and Sergei Zimin - Eifman has created an instrument capable of powerful expressivity and commanding technique. His fascination with the human psyche is at the root of his choreography.
"It is emotion that drives me to start creating, and emotion that brings the dance...," he says via a translator at the recent Boston engagement.
It is an aesthetic that characterizes Eifman's work.
Born in Siberia, where his parents had been exiled, he moved to Moldavia (now Moldova) at age 7 after Stalin died. He studied dance, but decided at the age of 13 that he would rather create than perform. After an impressive career at the Kirov Ballet's Vaganova Academy, Eifman was allowed to form his own company. With the fall of the Soviet Union in the early '90s, after years of censorship, he could give free reign to his creativity.
"All of my life since I have been choreographing, I have developed the same idea, to create choreography as an instrument for exploring the psyche of the human being...," he says.
"There is a new type of dance theater that on the one side is developing the traditional Russian ballet theater, always a very strong plot and dramaturgically grounded, a lot of individuality onstage, and the production provides a strong emotional outlet. What I'm doing now is enlarging the borders of that theater and using all the different techniques of dramatic theater, magic theater, incorporating modern techniques, lighting, and set design.
"And I am creating a new type of actor in my theater," he continues. "These are not just wonderful dancers, but actors who can express strong characters onstage and create the psychological drama. It is so important to show the power the human body has. You can lie with words. You cannot lie with the body, and what is hidden inside the body shows the eternal conflict between the body and the soul."
Eifman's next work, "Don Juan," will break from his recent spate of tragedies and incorporate the clowning of commedia dell'arte.
"It is God's gift to be able to choreograph," he says. "That is the sense of my being born.... I'm trying to give back to Russia the image of the country that not only created the triumph of classical ballet but has the capability today of renewing that tradition by adding new impulse, to show the tragic history of the country that we have in our heart's memory and our blood.
"This can be the new way of Russian ballet tradition."
* The Eifman Ballet will perform in Boston, April 21-22; Minneapolis, April 25-26; Chicago, April 28-30; San Francisco, May 2-4; Los Angeles, May 6-7; Dallas, May 9-10; Denver, May 12-13; and Colorado Springs, Colo., May 14.
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