Russian dance in the shadow of Balanchine

This year, ballet companies across the US and Europe are celebrating the centennial of choreographer George Balanchine, the father of neoclassical ballet. But the New York City Ballet (NYCB), Balanchine's former home, is not only presenting his works but featuring a world première about him, both to honor his vision and nudge the art form into the 21st century.

At least, that's the intent of Russian ballet master Boris Eifman, who choreographed a ballet about Balanchine's life that emphasizes a strong narrative. That's in direct contrast to Balanchine's abstract ballets, which tended to be about dance for its own sake rather than a story.

Eifman's "Musagète" takes a biographical spin through Balanchine's Russian heritage and journey to the United States - not to mention the ballerinas he encountered on the way - but also suggests the ongoing connections between ballet then and now.

"I will show that Balanchine is not a museum but choreography which can go forward," Eifman said after the recent première of his ballet, which the troupe will take on tour over the next few months.

Balanchine was among the Russian dance émigrés who came to the United States, arriving in 1933, after Anna Pavlova's troupe and the Diaghilev Ballets Russes, and before Rudolph Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and others who came after midcentury. Balanchine, who cofounded the School of American Ballet and the NYCB, where he worked until his passing in 1983, was arguably the major influence. But together, he and his compatriots transformed ballet from a plaything of the czars and a pet project of the Soviets into a robust American art form. In doing so, Balanchine not only developed the Russian style but also built a bridge between the 19th and 20th centuries.

"Musagète" was commissioned because Peter Martins, the NYCB's artistic director, had seen Eifman's company when it performed in New York, liked what he saw, and invited him to create a new work for "Balanchine 100," the NYCB centennial celebration of Balanchine's birth.

"Of course, it's a big honor for me to do a work for the company of Balanchine," says Eifman. "This company and my company are very different but many things are very close. Balanchine is from St. Petersburg; I am from St. Petersburg. He graduated from the Conservatory; I graduated from the Conservatory. But it's the music. Music was most important for Balanchine and it's most important for me. Music gives me my idea for choreography," he says.

Eifman wasn't an obvious candidate to choreograph for NYCB. The company is known for Balanchine's signature works, which reveal the crystalline beauty of ballet movement allied with music rather than the expressive qualities of the steps and gestures.

By contrast, Eifman's ballets are based on literature and history and present the agony of the human condition and its effect on the individual. His style includes a mélange of techniques that owe as much to gymnastics and the circus as to the ballet studio.

"I hope I bring more energy, new emotion, and new ideas," says the choreographer. "I bring some blood to this kind of performance. I give something new, a little bit [of] strong emotion," he says.

Balanchine's muses

"Musagète," meaning "one who pushes the Muses," according to Eifman, refers to Balanchine's well-known devotion to his ballerinas, four of whom he married. The ballet, set to music by J.S. Bach and a final section by Tchaikovsky, opens with a spotlight on a man bent over in a chair. He is clearly George Balanchine at the end of his life, looking back on himself as a young man.

Passages with allusions to some of Balanchine's most famous works are performed by a large corps de ballet, alternating with pas de deux and solos for dancer Robert Tewsley in his highly charged portrayal of Balanchine as a man torn apart by emotions. Among his partners are a catlike woman dressed in Russian beaded cap and leotard, a young student who grows into a star but suffers a tragedy, and a child-ballerina who rejects him. Any Balanchine fan can fill in the names, although Eifman declines to specifically identify the women, preferring to consider them symbols.

"This company has very strong emotional potential. They are young people. They are emotional inside. My point was to bring something new for them. If I bring something like they have done, why am I here?" Eifman says.

Critics were sharply divided over "Musagète," which some felt had been grafted onto the New York company. (Eifman choreographed it in Russia using his own dancers, instead of bringing the new work directly to NYCB dancers.)

A number of critics also found the dissection of Balanchine's on- and off-stage life in questionable taste. Others simply accepted Eifman's work as a story ballet on a now-legendary man.

Russian ballet clings to old ways

As a newcomer to the United States in 1933, Balanchine immersed himself in the new sights and sounds he found here, from the jittery rhythms of American jazz and pop music to the tempo of speeding automobiles. Although his foundation was the classical ballet training he had learned in St. Petersburg and the ballets of the 19th-century choreographer Marius Petipa, Balanchine created a neoclassical technique that aligned ballet with the work of modern American and European artists and composers.

That style of choreography didn't catch on in Russia. Under the rule of Stalin and later ministers, the experimental choreographers of Balanchine's generation were suppressed, so ballet remained stuck in the old traditions.

Now, the Russians are racing to catch up. During the past 10 years, the Maryinsky Ballet (known as the Kirov under the Soviets) has added the works of Balanchine - who once danced for the company - to its repertory. Eifman's company, founded in 1977, survives with no government support by presenting his free-wheeling, emotion-drenched dances to the young and hip audiences he has cultivated in Russia and on tours to the West.

"Balanchine left Russia when he was 20, but he took everything best from Russia," Eifman says. "I did the ballet because I see that this information about Balanchine changed me, too, [and] gave me new ideas for my art," he says.

"I must make one step forward to show this growth from Petipa to Balanchine to our time."

The Russian Festival programs, including Balanchine's own ballets, will be repeated during the company's July residency in Saratoga, N.Y. Many of Balanchine's works will be performed in Tokyo; Costa Mesa, Calif.; and Los Angeles on the NYCB's Sept.-Oct. tour.

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