Russian was clearly the dominant language in the City Center lobby on opening night of the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg. Encouraged, no doubt, by the splash the company made here last spring, New York's substantial Russian-American community turned out once again to revel in Boris Eifman's eclectic, brazenly theatrical choreography -- created against all odds in a culture dominated by the Kirov Ballet's traditional classicism -- and, indeed, awarded it a prolonged standing ovation. I respect the fact that the work speaks eloquently to its audience. I wish I could join in the enthusiasm, but my aesthetic has been irrevocably shaped by that other guy from St. Petersburg, the one who left, George Balanchine.
The ballet of the evening was The Karamazovs, inspired by the similarly titled Dostoyevsky novel, its score culled from Rachmaninoff, Wagner, and Mussorgsky. According to interviews Eifman's been giving and the house program's account of his aims, the Dostoyevsky connection is not absurd or overweening but inevitable. It would seem that this choreographer sincerely believes dance to be an apt vehicle for representing not merely complex psychological relationships but philosophical profundities as well. Well, more power to the art if it can manage this unlikely feat. I have never seen it accomplished. In my experience, the more dependent on detailed narrative a dance is, the more it attempts to embody abstract ideas, the more insistent it is on specific emotional epiphanies -- the more it is doomed. Dance operates by means of visual and musical suggestion, by metaphor, by eliciting a kinetic response. It can convey only poorly the very matters that are best expressed in words.
Given his intentions, Eifman relies on dubious resources to carry them out. Most of his choreographic ammunition comes from classical ballet, but -- as is often the case with ballet's would-be progressives smitten with modern dance -- he jettisons the smaller and subtler steps in the traditional vocabulary. This diminished language is then fortified with devices, now common property, originated by artists who once defied ballet, Martha Graham first among them (watch those whiplash spines!). The mixture is next heavily spiced with circus stunts that shamelessly include flying. It's further supported by cunning ploys with props -- the table trick from Balanchine's Prodigal Son, amplified to the point of absurdity, and bodies struggling against metal grids, a staple of mid-century angst-ridden dance. The results tend to be cheap and garish, hardly fit for a theater of ideas or even for the revelation of souls in conflict.
Most of the audience appeared to find The Karamazovs meaningful, thrilling, or both. I found it, for the most part, tacky and boring, rather like the work of Maurice Béjart, who of course has his own avid audience. This state of affairs resurrects the fascinating question of how much purportedly objective aesthetic judgment and idiosyncratic personal taste overlap. I suppose I can thank Eifman for reminding me of it.