Choreographer trades Tchaikovsky for all that jazz

Imagine "Some Like It Hot" as a ballet, complete with sleazy gangsters, flamboyant dolls, and two guys in drag on the run.

However, in Boris Eifman's new evening-length "Who's Who," given its world première in Boston last weekend, that familiar storyline is only on the surface. As the ballet follows the misadventures of two Russian dancers who flee to America after the Revolution of 1917, "Who's Who" is really about the trials and triumphs of immigration, assimilation, and realizing one's dream.

Eifman created his new ballet as a tribute to America after 9/11. "There is the idea that the United States is a country where most people can realize their dreams and where people dream to come," he said in an interview after last Saturday's performance.

Accordingly, he set the ballet to a score predominantly composed of jazz, ranging from Scott Joplin to Duke Ellington to Dave Brubeck.

"Who's Who" is a departure for Eifman, who has emerged over the past three decades as Russia's most significant contemporary choreographer.

Since establishing his own St. Petersburg-based company in 1977, Eifman has revolutionized the concept of ballet with his flamboyant, innovative movement style and highly theatrical sensibility. He is known for combining provocative subject matter and sensuous, athletic movement with elaborate multitiered sets, brilliant lighting, and extravagant costumes (roughly 300 are used in "Who's Who").

He creates complex montages that are almost cinematic in quality, as much spectacle as dance. His best-known works, such as "Tchaikovsky," "Red Giselle," and "Russian Hamlet," are dark psychodramas awash in madness, betrayal, vengeance, and death. These vivid melodramas spark both enthusiastic fervor by fans and charges of vulgarity and overkill by detractors.

With its undercurrent of humor and use of jazz rather than the grand classical works Eifman usually favors, "Who's Who" is considerably tamer.

However, the opening is textbook Eifman. In a haze of theatrical smoke, a huge, gleaming portal of futuristic towers and scaffolds opens to reveal a huddled mass of immigrants with shabby clothes and haunted faces.

Their dance upon arrival in America is a joyous folk ballet suggesting the richness of the past. But soon the hot sounds of 1920s jazz take over as the two protagonists, Alex and Max, find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and disguised as women, are forced to take shelter in a nightclub.

Here, Eifman begins to meld ballet with jazz, modern dance, acrobatics, even a little tap, not to mention a hefty dose of cartoonish violence. His superb dancers, with the flexibility of Gumby and the athletic dynamism of martial-arts practitioners, throw themselves into Eifman's vigorous, hyperextended moves with skill, abandon, and style to burn.

Highlights include a slinky, sultry Fosseflavored solo by Alex's love interest, Lynn (given a sizzling performance by Natalia Povorozniuk); a flashy production number set to "Sing, Sing, Sing"; an anguished expressionistic solo as much modern dance as ballet; and a little beach scene, featuring an octet of men posing and sunning themselves.

Though Eifman's movement style is rooted in ballet, steps are less important than the grand gesture. His work is dance theater in the broadest sense, where the storyline and characters are as integral as the choreography.

"Classicism is one important style, but not my general style," Eifman says. "I play the instrument of dramaturgy.... Drama comes when I play with different styles of dance. It comes from the movement itself."

Disappointingly, both innovative movement and drama suffer in "Who's Who." The characters are less developed, less achingly human than in many of Eifman's other big works, and in losing the grand melodrama, he has diluted some of the distinctive movement quality and passion that usually drives his aesthetic.

However, Eifman believes the work acts as a bridge between Russian and American cultures.

For example, the beginning and ending beautifully illustrate Eifman's view of immigrant survival through the kind of assimilation that doesn't demand a loss of integrity.

The classical-ballet style featured in the beginning is straight out of St. Petersburg. But the ballet sequence at the end is a phrase from Balanchine, the man who transformed Russian ballet with a distinctly American edge and energy.

Eifman, soft-spoken and surprisingly humble for a man who thinks on such a grand scale, asserts that "Who's Who" is not a new direction, just one of the "stations" on his ongoing choreographic journey.

"My company needs something new, a different kind of production, new elements to develop the technique, the body, the imagination," he explains. His warm smile tempers dark, piercing eyes. "Maybe I come back to myself next time."

For Eifman, dance is the vehicle through which he can make his own dreams come true. "The desires I cannot realize in life, I realize through art," he says simply.

"It is a privilege to see my dream on the stage, to see myself through the artists. I am inside the creation."

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