A Ballet by Boris Eifman. Eifman Ballet St. Petersburg
at the Sony Centre, May 11-13, 2017

Dedicated to Olga Spessivtseva, one of the greatest ballerinas to become a cult figure in Russia in the 20th century, Boris Eifman’s Red Giselle is dramatically bold ballet theatre that does not pretend to be a dance biography. More of a generalized picture of Spessivtseva’s unhappy fate and of those of many talented people who were forced to leave Russia and experienced a tragic end, it is a narrative executed in quick, broad strokes that are potently expressive despite a choreography that is often schematically repetitive as far as the corps is concerned. Eifman’s anonymous Ballerina is traced from her beginnings as the embodiment of perfect beauty and mystery through to her dark romantic involvement with the Commissar, who represents the new political authority and who suppresses her will. It culminates in the Ballerina’s complex relationships with her Teacher, the Commissar, the Parisian Dancer/Choreographer, and her malignly fateful identification with the role of Giselle.

The red in the title becomes a symbol of the new Revolutionary Petrograd, as well as of the Ballerina’s haunting fate, such as her treacherous entanglement with the Commissar, her subjugation to his radical political ideology, her despair, exile, and eventually madness. The piece is romantic tragedy that leaves little or no room for meditation in its compelling impetus and velocity. The Ballerina is a beautiful but fragile creature, danced by Maria Abashova with exquisite grace in the ballet rehearsal before the superbly supple and admiring Teacher of Oleg Markov. Vyacheslav Okunev’s sets and costumes are striking echoes of Bakst and Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, though on a very modified scale. When the narrative shifts into the new political chaos and strife, there is a palpable darkening of tone and colour, not the least of which is heralded by Eifman’s sudden and unsubtle tropes of lighting. However, Abashova and the muscular, gymnastics of Sergey Volubev’s blond Commissar in black leather produce a pas de deux of stunning eroticism, highlighted by her bold splayed thighs, knees, and feet and his brutally uncompromising machismo with brusque, violent, staccato movements. Volubev’s lifts and Abashova’s balances have extraordinary height and virtuosity, and the choreography denotes a different rhythm and power from the orthodox classicism of traditional ballet.

The affair of Ballerina and Commissar intertwines attraction and fear, political, aesthetic, and psychological, and the Teacher’s despair (he is tortured in an unforgettable tableau vivant) is more than matched by the Ballerina’s confusion, though she is allowed to leave Russia and find a new path in Paris at the Grand Opera, where a young dancer/choreographer (Oleg Gabyshev), who brilliantly evokes Serge Lifar without slavish mimicry. The new Partner, however, happens to have a gay partner, performed by Dmitry Fisher with a virility that one wishes were not so sketchily dictated by Eifman. The hot jazz of Paris in the 20s and 30s is given a colourful exercise musically and choreographically, and it does provide relief from the Ballerina’s morbid consciousness and experiences. However, this sequence lacks dramatic definition beyond its role as a diversion or digression.

Indeed, whatever flaws and anomalies taint Red Giselle are really Eifman’s fault in that, though there is much to admire about the solos, duos, and trios in this piece, the ensemble choreography is unimaginatively repetitive with a lot of elbow swinging and militant semaphores for the masses and crucifixion poses for some of the principals. Though the musical score (an arrangement of Tchaikovsky, Alfred Schnittke, Bizet, and Adolphe Adam) is superbly apt, the abrupt changes in lighting do not help, nor does the libretto that rehearses clichés about exiled refugees and madness. The Ballerina’s nightmarish hallucination, like much of her interaction with the Commissar, is rendered in polyglot movement with a strong classical base, and Eifman does give each major character a distinctive stance, gestural style, and center of gravity, but the Ballerina’s disintegration is not charted with sufficient care or detail, so the climax of her disappearance into the flickering world of the mirror, identifying so much with Giselle that she never recovers sanity, falls a little flat. The sequence feels willed rather than organically generated. However, Red Giselle has enough thrilling bravura to transcend its flaws.


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