Russian Ham

The Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg, a surprise hit in the States for three years running, is not your conventional purveyor of concert dance, classical or otherwise. Yes, even the venerable Bolshoi Ballet finally succumbed and commissioned a Boris Eifman piece, but that, I would suggest, is the Bolshoi’s problem. Much as Eifman may lay claim to elevated aspirations – “Dance is the instrument of my soul” – what he actually delivers, with ingenuous relish, is popular entertainment. His stock in trade is the extravaganza that titillates by means of poster-art passions, glamorized violence, a wide streak of sentimentality, and some decidedly creepy eroticism.

Eifman’s so-called ballets are essentially lurid melodramas that happen to use movement – traditional ballet and mid-century expressionist-modern – in place of words. His scenarios are both grandiose and absurd. In Russian Hamlet, new to New York in this engagement, Catherine the Great and her unfortunate son, Paul I, become Gertrude and her poor boy. In Red Giselle, Olga Spessivtseva, the sublime Revolution-era Russian ballerina who went mad, serves as the victimized heroine in a saga depicting (literally as well as metaphorically) the rape of the ballet of the czars. Even if belief is generously suspended before such librettos, they’re undermined by their internal inconsistency.

Taken as a whole, though, Eifman’s aesthetic is all of a piece. His idea of musical accompaniment is to wrench large chunks of Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, or Mahler from their contexts and offset the sublimity with whatever latter-day stuff is needed to indicate that a character or situation is seriously unraveling. His crudely phantasmagoric scenic effects, though confined to the City Center so far, are clearly yearning for the Radio City Music Hall. His dance vocabulary – I mention this last because it appears to rank low among this choreographer’s concerns – looks as if it had been derived from two dubious sources: videotapes of the Martha Graham repertory when it was way past its prime and the elements of academic ballet, such as extravagantly splayed-out postures, that read effectively even at a great distance. As for the acting the performers do as they execute these contorted or exaggerated maneuvers (the same ones, again and again and again), it’s all histrionics. The model for the generic, high-pitched emoting might be silent films unilluminated – uninflected, even – by talent.

There is an audience avid for this. In New York, a staunch component of this public consists of émigré Russians. Listen to the pre-performance babble in the lobby and you’re transported to Moscow – or at least to Brighton Beach; the familiar pre-curtain admonition to gag beeping electronic devices is delivered in Russian as well as in English. This devotion on the part of the landsleit is not merely a matter of chauvinistic loyalty. Eifman’s over-the-top take on history and psychology reflects a significant strain in Russian art, particularly in literature and opera. Think of Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov (which Eifman has already appropriated). Think of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Eifman’s concepts and his manner of animating them are also an entirely reasonable response to the political climate that has prevailed for centuries in his homeland – brute force, terror, dislocation, and magical belief being the norm.

Still, not all Eifman enthusiasts are Russia-oriented. Many just relish visual and emotional spectacle, the more flamboyant the better. The most undaunted of these admirers probably wouldn’t object if the productions were done as ice-skating shows, a genre in which, by the way, Eifman has served his term, no doubt successfully.

Russian Ham