ballet2010

2010 Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina is a novel by the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, published in serial installments from 1873 to 1877 in the periodical The Russian Messenger. Tolstoy clashed with its editor Mikhail Katkov over issues that arose in the final installment; therefore, the novel's first complete appearance was in book form.
Widely regarded as a pinnacle in realist fiction, Tolstoy considered Anna Karenina his first true novel, when he came to consider War and Peace to be more than a novel. The character of Anna was likely inspired, in part, by Maria Hartung, the elder daughter of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. Soon after meeting her at dinner, Tolstoy began reading Pushkin's prose and once had a fleeting daydream of "a bare exquisite aristocratic elbow", which proved to be the first intimation of Anna's character.
Although Russian critics dismissed the novel on its publication as a "trifling romance of high life", Fyodor Dostoevsky declared it to be "flawless as a work of art". His opinion was shared by Vladimir Nabokov, who especially admired "the flawless magic of Tolstoy's style" and the motif of the moving train, subtly introduced in the first chapters (the children playing with a toy train) and inexorably developed in subsequent chapters (Anna's nightmare), heralding the novel's majestic finale. The novel is currently enjoying popularity as demonstrated by a recent poll of 125 contemporary authors by J. Peder Zane, published in 2007 in The Top Ten, which declared that Anna Karenina is the "greatest novel ever written".
Adapted from the classic novel, the ballet tells the story of Anna Karenina, a young woman in 19th century Russia who falls in love with the dashing Count Vronsky, unbeknownst to her husband. Eventually, the secret bond between Anna and the count is revealed under tragic circumstances.

One thing of which Boris Eifman cannot be accused is subtlety. The contemporary Russian choreographer, who runs his own company out of St. Petersburg, has been variously touted and excoriated in the press for his sexy, emotional, over-the-top story ballets. Well, never mind the press. If the rapturous audience reception of his Anna Karenina at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall is any barometer, just plain folks love it.

Tolstoy’s famed tale of infidelity and regret is as overblown in Eifman’s interpretation as the Tchaikovsky music to which it is set. He almost hits you over the head with symbolism. In the first scene, Anna says goodnight to her little boy who is playing with a toy train, foreshadowing the locomotive which will kill her at the end. At a ball, the good people of the town are dressed in shades of gray while Anna and her husband stand out in black.

But who cares when the dancing is so terrific?  Maria Abashova is so beautiful in the title role, it’s easy to see why she is the center point of this triangle. Albert Galichanin suffers nobly (and athletically) as her betrayed husband and the muscular Yuri Smekalov is riveting as the lover. Once Anna meets and falls for the dashing officer, Vronsky, the town gossips bouree to a pizzicato scherzo while they whisper about the scandal. The officers of the garrison strut their stuff before the ladies of the town with a series of quirky leaps and Karenin writhes in jealous, vengeful agony to the strains of the Francesca da Rimini. (Although the music works for the most part, Eifman’s choice of snippets is almost amusing. Of course, the tragic ending is set to Romeo and Juliet).

The corps has a great deal to do as the choreographer interpolates scenes of drunken soldiers collapsing onto one another like dominoes and a masked ball into the action to lighten up the angst. And they do it superbly (with the exception of one quickly-covered-up fall on opening night). At the end, the men of the corps mass and chug to actually become the menacing train before which the distraught heroine flings herself. It is a remarkable device.

But the steamy sex scenes between Anna and Vronsky are at the heart of the matter, as is Anna’s breakdown. Torn between the two men, Abashova is tireless in transformation, wracked with regret at one moment, buoyant with joy at another. Forbidden by Karenin to see their son in her disgrace, she returns home and begs for mercy. But, when her husband approaches her she recoils from his touch. She moves like an automaton when she does move; otherwise she is a dead weight, like a rag doll. She returns to Vronsky but it is the beginning of the end.

Anna’s breakdown is set to cacophonous modern music, not Tchaikovsky and danced in flesh-colored unitards by the heroine and the corps. It’s a kind of nightmare vision of Purgatory with flashing strobes and whirling bodies. Again, not subtle, but interesting. Actually, the entire evening was interesting, with nary a dull moment. Although not for the purist, there is something to be said for Boris Eichman’s particular brand of psycho-eroticism. And he says it best himself: “Ballet is a very special art form that gives us an opportunity to permeate into the subconscious and dive into the heart of psychological drama.” Dive he does and whether the work sinks or swims is in the eye of the beholder.

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Boris Eifman Ballet

Twenty eight years ago, a ballet troupe with an intriguing name of “The New Ballet” presented its first performance – which completely justified its name.  In the stagnant creative atmosphere of Russia in the 1970s, works by Boris Eifman – the founder and Artistic Director of “The New Ballet” – were like a breath of fresh air.  Eifman’s combination of relevant themes and deep psychological perception, philosophical ideas and fiery passions, audacity of movement vocabulary and clarity of dramatic intent were highly unusual for that time.  Even more remarkable was the artists’ level of commitment.  The creation of a ballet troupe dedicated to performing works by one choreographer only was a unique phenomenon in itself .

Eifman’s ballet theater was geared towards a continuous creative process and each year produced new titles for its repertoire.  After “Boomerang,” which was set to rock music, came “The Idiot,” which became a phenomenon in the Russian theater and clearly defined the aesthetic goals of Eifman’s ballet troupe:  the dramatization of the art of dance, deep penetration into the human psyche, daring interpretation of the most relevant, or “taboo,” themes of the time, and the creation of meaningful metaphors through movement.  Eifman also became known for the elegance and powerful impact of the mass action scenes impeccably executed by the troupe’s captivating corps de ballet.

Eifman’s repertoire helped create a special type of artist, combining dancing, acting, brilliant technique, and a gift for transformation.

Eifman’s ballet theater presented 27 productions in its first decade.  Seeking to create a diverse repertoire, Eifman experimented with various genres, which ranged from choreographic miniatures to full-evening ballets.  This period produced “The Metamorphoses” and “Autographs,” “The Legend” and “A Crazy Day,” “The Twelfth Night” and “Love’s Intrigues.” 

It was also during that time that the poignant “Sub-lieutenant Romashov” and the innovative “Master and Margarita” broke though the barriers of censorship.  These ballets saw an entire generation of audiences to whom Eifman’s works have given an unusual feeling of freedom and on whom they have made an astounding emotional and spiritual impact.

Eifman’s production of “The Murderers” signaled a new period in the life of Eifman Ballet characterized by a special emphasis on seeking new forms of dance expression, psychoanalysis through movement, and a new, previously unexplored, energy in dance.

Eifman Ballet’s latest and best known productions include “Tchaikovsky,” “Don Quixote,” “The Karamazovs,” “Red Giselle,” “My Jerusalem,” “Russian Hamlet,” and “Don Juan & Moliere.”  These ballets have brought worldwide recognition to such already well-known and versatile artists of the Eifman Ballet as Albert Galichanin, Elena Kuzmina, Vera Arbuzova, Yuri Ananyan, Alexander Rachinsky, Sergei Zimin.  Today, a young generation of artists is realizing its talent alongside these masters.  They include Yuri Smekalov, Natalia Povorozniuk, Alina Solonskaya, Konstantin Matulevsky, Anastassia Sitnikova, Maria Abashova, Oleg Markov.  Besides the talent of its soloists, Eifman Ballet also owes its success in large part to the incredibly disciplined and professional corps de ballet.  Collaborating on “Tchaikovsky” has laid the foundation for a creative union between two extraordinary artists – Boris Eifman and set designer Vyacheslav Okunev, both of whom are now responsible for what is described as the “amazing visual impact” of the Eifman Ballet productions.

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Boris Eifman

A sketch of the artist.
Having created over 40 ballets, Boris Eifman is one of the few Russian choreographers to have sustained such a prolific creative life in recent decades.  His ballet, “Tchaikovsky” (as well as the leading cast members of “Tchaikovsky” and “The Karamazovs”) has received the prestigious Russian “Golden Mask” award, and the choreographer himself has received the Golden Mask award for his lifetime achievement in contemporary choreography.  Mr. Eifman is also a four-time recipient of the St. Petersburg theater award, “The Golden Sofit.”  His other awards and distinctions include the “Triumph” award; the Russian state award for his contribution to the development of the performing arts; induction into France’s Order of Arts and Letters; the distinguished title of “The People’s Artist of Russia;” and a professorship at the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet.

The 59 year-old choreographer was born in Siberia.  He received his education at the Vaganova Ballet Academy, as well as at the choreographic department of the Leningrad Conservatory.  In 1977 he founded The New Ballet of Leningrad (now known as the St. Petersburg State Academic Ballet Theater, or Eifman Ballet) – Russia’s first and only ballet theater dedicated to performing works by a single choreographer.  With his new ballet troupe, he created an original choreographic style based on classical ballet and infused with the spirit of contemporary choreography.  He has also brought up a group of like-minded artists for whom nothing seems impossible.

Eifman’s artistic philosophy is rooted in contemporary issues.  He is fascinated by the creative mystery and the magic of genius, which is revealed in his interpretations of the lives of Tchaikovsky, Spessivtseva, and Moliere.  Immersing himself in the dark and daunting realm of the human psyche (“The Idiot,” “Murderers,” “Don Quixote,” “Red Giselle,” and “Russian Hamlet”), Eifman creates classic examples of psychoanalysis on stage.  He wants to show an extreme state of being, seeing the madness of his characters not as a mental illness, but as a unique ability to access other worlds and dimensions.  The choreographer pushes the limits of his own imagination through the imagination of his heroes, plunging into the depths of today’s most relevant philosophical and spiritual questions – which were the basis for his latest ballets, “Russian Hamlet”, “Don Juan and Moliere”, and « Who’s Who ». In 2004 Boris Eifman created one-act ballet « Musagete » for New York City Ballet as part of George Balanchine Centennial Celebration program.

In creating his style, Eifman worked through many paradigms and styles of movement, turning his theater into a creative lab for exploration and discovery.  Concerned above all with the theatrical impact of his productions, the choreographer does not restrict himself to the conventions of pure classical ballet.  His works are each a complex, all-encompassing spectacle, constantly revealing new forms and principles of dancemaking.  Using the language of movement and expressive dance steps, dynamic and riveting mass action scenes, unexpected moments of stillness where movement becomes a metaphor, and innovative partnering, Boris Eifman creates his own type of theater – a theater ruled by emotion.

Choreographer’s Reflections On His New Work

Ballet is a very special art form that gives us an opportunity to permeate into the subconscious and dive into the heart of psychological drama.  Each new ballet is an expedition into the unknown.

Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina, has always captured my interest.  When reading Tolstoy, one can viscerally feel the author’s acute understanding of his characters’ psyche and revel in his astonishing sensitivity and incredible detail in portraying life in Russia.  The novel, Anna Karenina, allows us not only to submerge deep into the psyche of the heroine, but also to fully understand her psychoerotic essence.  Even today’s literature does not offer such passion, metamorphoses, and phantasmagorias.  All this stood at the core of my choreographic investigation.

The Karenin family’s steady rhythm of life – the government service of the head of the family, the family’s strict adherence to the societal norms – created an illusion of harmony and peace.  But Anna’s passion for Vronsky crushed the familiar.  The sincerity of the feelings between the two lovers was reviled and openly criticized.  Karenin’s hypocrisy was acceptable for everyone but Anna.  She preferred the sweeping passion for the man she loved to the duty of a mother to her son – and thus condemned herself to the life of an outcast.

She did not find happiness in travels, her husband’s rich estate, or the habitual amusements of the society in which she lived.  Instead, she fell captive to a woman’s tragic enslavement to her sensuality.  I understand a woman who becomes dependent on a man.  This dependence, however, like any other disease, brings only suffering.

Eventually, Anna is driven to commit suicide in order to break free and put an end to her unbearable and torturous life.  Like in a werewolf, two people lived in Anna:  one was the outwardly known lady of high society, who was familiar to Karenin, her son, and everyone around her.  The other was a woman drowning in a sea of passion.

What is more important – to preserve the widely accepted illusion of harmony between duty and emotion, or to allow sincere passion to take over?  Do we have the right to destroy our family and to rid a child of a mother for the sake of carnal pleasure?  These questions beleaguered Tolstoy in the past, and they are still inescapable today.  Yet there are no answers.  There is just the unquenchable thirst for understanding – either in life or in death.

Critics

Russian choreographer Boris Eifman is a soaring, raging, daring, sentimental, utterly romantic maker of ballets. His theatrical visions are epic. For more than twenty years he has been accomplishing what was only aspiration for other post-revolutionary Soviet choreographers: He subverts dance form to raw emotion.

Yet, in atmosphere his ballets are in some ways as passe as the artistic world against which they rebel so steadfastly. Every dance, be it a solo for Tchaikovsky on his deathbed or a trudging procession for a bereft populace, seems inscribed in blood. Eifman asks so much of dance that it becomes a form of acrobatic acting. He asks even more of his dancers. In their passion and sheer physical endurance, and in their unswerving faith in their director, they are cultists as well as corps.
Last season the company was first seen on these shores in Eifman's Tchaikovsky and Red Giselle, both evening-long phantasmagoric journeys through artists' lives. This season the two works were repeated and were joined by The Karamazovs and by a program consisting of two shorter ballets, Requiem and My Jerusalem. I found My Jerusalem to be particularly well-knit.

In Eifman's longer works, the fast moving, episodic structure and the frequent recourse to visual effects, like puffs of smoke and piercing overhead lighting, dilute one's concentration on the principal characters, who become symbols rather than full-blown individuals. In My Jerusalem, however, the panoramic style functions well. It also has far greater musical flexibility than Eifman's other dance journeys. Instead of struggling against the weight of nineteenth-century symphonic pieces, My Jerusalem opens its windows to folk themes and contemporary electronic scores.

Three light-studded arcs looming upstage polarize the action. They are both refuge and launching area for the dancers, who form a series of striking religious images: The poetic Yuri Ananyan in a pieta; the electrifying Yelena Kuzmina in a lament; Igor Markov in a passionate Hebraic solo leading to a windswept version of "Hava nagila" for the group.

Gradually the geometric forms glide together and suggest the rocking hull of an ark. The dancers cluster inside. Eifman and his resourceful designer, Viacheslav Okunev, have imagined that the three divergent religions of Jerusalem can amalgamate and be at peace.

For Requiem, Eifman took on the challenge of Mozart's Requiem in D Minor. At the outset, a group of nondescript-looking people dragged bundled corpses across the stage. The grim procession was later repeated. Dancers amassed and raised individuals in their midst. All reached and mourned. They spread their arms and opened their mouths in a silent cry. By this time, the choreography had become so dense that it pulled away from the stoic nobility of the music. I

found myself wondering about the effect Requiem might produce if danced in silence or with only an occasional punctuation of sound.

In most of Eifman's works the architecture resides as strongly in the decor as in the dance. For The Karamazovs, Okunev devised a metal structure that served as scaffolding, brothel, and prison. Backed by scrambling, staring, climbing figures, Dostoyevsky's men pursued their lust and fled from their guilt so frenetically that one became exhausted watching them. Human torment, no matter how brilliantly depicted, eventually takes on an edge of monotony.

For its principal roles, The Karamazovs relied on the company's core dancers: Ananyan, Vera Arbuzova, Albert Galichanin, Kuzmina, and Markov. While each has an impressive individual style, they also display the mutual awareness of a fine string quintet. The corps members are attuned with equal care.

Rarely, if ever, does Eifman require his artists to perform gently. Even in Red Giselle, which deals with the plight of the great lyrical ballerina, Olga Spessivtseva, Kuzmina as Spessivtseva is required to interpret the entire ballet, even its apocryphal scenes from Giselle, as a series of variations on tension. She does so masterfully, but it would be rewarding to see her in another mode.

How ironic that Eifman, who has devoted himself so passionately, and in many ways so successfully, to liberating Soviet ballet, has created constraints of his own.
Dance Magazine,  May, 1999  by Doris Hering

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Ballet will never be the same once you have seen Boris Eifman's production of Anna Karenina. Using a blend of classic movement and modern interpretation, Eifman gives the kiss of life to an art form that is hard pressed to stage a fresh full-length performance.

Before a step is taken, however, the powerful set and lighting become presences in the story. Though dance is the medium, the audience is clearly prepared for drama of great weight and import through these visual crafts. They are, as so much else in Eifman's production, quickly changed, unpredictable, and not all they seem at first impression.

Grandly proportioned at times, the sets were never decorated more than necessary to give the suggestion of place to the audience. Spare props like a bed or a child's toy placed the focus on the dancers instead of on backdrops or furniture.

Rather than a continually lighted stage, beams were selectively focused, often with blackness elsewhere. Especially evocative was the cone of light that
shone down upon Anna several times. It was the sort of light shape an oncoming train plays upon the tracks, but turned on end, pinning her like a specimen in its beam.

Rapid scenery changes whisked us from the opulence of Pre-Revolutionary ballrooms, to the somber and heavy confines of the Karenin mansion and then to the portentously ominous grime of a train station. Instead of painted scenery, chandeliers, balconies, and facades of edifices were lowered and withdrawn at a pace that evoked the frantically beating hearts of the characters in their race towards tragedy.

Built like an imperial Borzoi, Maria Abashova, as Anna, is eye riveting every moment she is on stage. Choreography that made the most of her physical attributes allowed her time and again to extend a line from fingertip to toe that seemed to stretch on forever. Voluminous skirted costumes reminiscent of Martha Graham's fluid jerseys, abetted the illusion of endless leg.

Costumes also carried their own layers of meaning. An elegant black dress Anna wears to the ball where Vronsky commits himself to her, visually and symbolically contrasted with Kiti's similar white garment. Both referenced the innocent and manipulative duality of the quintessential innocent/seductress roles of Odette and Odile in Swan Lake.

Following one scene in which Anna struggled to exhaustion with Karenin, she made a lightning costume change that might seem superfluous were it not for its symbolism. She had been wearing a blush colored dress, nearly devoid of color, similar to the root of a plant in its subterranean whiteness. Then, clothed in mint green for a flowing pas de deux with Vronsky, she became a tender shoot emerging into light.

Another costume change occurred on stage, but was so cleverly maneuvered it seemed like sleight of hand. During one of the more contemporary segments of choreography, Anna spirals downward in opiate induced destruction. Facing the audience, she crawls into her bottle, so to speak, by wriggling through the open shelf of a small table, which holds her drug. Only her head and shoulders are lighted, leaving complete darkness around and behind her. It wasn't until Ms. Abashova had wriggled halfway through the shelf that I became aware of a metamorphosis! She had been wearing a midnight blue gown, but then emerged in a white leotard and tights, as if the life had been sucked out of her!

Beyond the obvious color symbolism of the adulteress red dress she wore in a confrontation with Karenin, there was the additional halter collar to show how tethered she was to him. The corps, garbed in full Carnival attire, sported individually characterized masks, thus representing the haven to which Anna and Vronsky fled in Venice, but also the impenetrable wall society put up before them for their indiscretion. Karenin tears off his coat as though he is

rending the garment of his life. Over and over, costume became one of the sensory conduits to the message of the plot.

In an earlier time of his life, Mr. Eifman choreographed ice shows and some of his most intriguing movements reprise those beginnings. Turns that double back on themselves as the danseur guides the ballerina under his arm with his hand to her head, slides along the floor, floor work itself, and even a spinning "death spiral" hearken back to icy arenas. I admit to loving the synthesis of dance forms and their innovative presentation.

The principal parts of Anna, Karenin, and Vronsky require performers who are not only consummate technicians, but actors as well. Each of the parts could be reduced to maudlin soap opera stereotypes, but are not. There is no bombast or bravura dancing to give the dancers substance. Instead, the genius of the choreography and Abashova, Galichanin, and Smekov's individual artistry made each of their roles as true and tragic as they needed to be.

In a recent interview, Mr. Eifman said, his company is, "...the tallest company, the tallest dancers in the world.... The most beautiful! Very talented! They're all actors!" This was no proud exaggeration. Partnering Ms. Abashova, Albert Galichanin as Karenin, and Yuri Smekalov dancing Vronsky, endowed their respective performances with viral athleticism, speed, and emotion that created real and tragic people, not merely die cut roles.

I had never had much sympathy for Karenin when I read the novel and saw many film versions of Anna Karenina. He had always seemed cold and distant. For the first time, I empathized with his anguish and was able to appreciate the character as a dimensional person.

Anna Karenina is the sort of provocative story that forces one to examine values and opinions. As a ballet, it engages our close attention and participation lest we miss a nuance. Boris Eifman does not make it easy for his audience by laying out candy box prettiness and posturing. The Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg only asks of the audience what it gives them itself, and that is everything!

Susan Weinrebe - June 16, 2005