The Composer Battles Inner Demons in Eifman’s Tchaikovsky

United StatesUnited States Tchaikovsky: Boris Eifman (choreographer), Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, 23.6.2017. (JRo)

Oleg Gabyshev and Maria Abashova in Tchaikovsky (c) Evgeny Matveev

Principal Dancers:
Oleg Gabyshev (Tchaikovsky)
Sergey Volobuev (Tchaikovsky’s Double, Von Rothbart, Drosselmeyer, Onegin, Herman)
Lyubov Andreyeva (Antonina Milyukova)
Maria Abashova (Nadezhda Von Meck, Countess)
Dmitry Krylov (Prince, Lensky, Joker)
Polina Petrova (Masha)
Lilia Lishchuk (Tatyana)
Alina Fisher (Olga)

Music – Pyotr Tchaikovsky
Sets – Zinovy Margolin
Costumes – Olga Shaishmelashvili, Vyacheslav Okunev
Lighting – Alexander Sivaev, Boris Eifman

It’s hard not to compare Boris Eifman’s Rodin, staged in Los Angeles in 2015, with this season’s Tchaikovsky. Both works present an artist in torment, besieged by inner demons and unstable women. Rodin fascinated with its intense physicality and ingenuity. The sculptor’s artistic process was explored in choreographic terms – the push and pull of molding clay and the creation of Rodin’s most famous works, with dancers assuming the various postures of the figures. Coupled with the investigation of Rodin’s relationship to the artist Camille Claudel, Eifman created a successful drama of a driven artist.

Certainly, it is more difficult to illustrate through movement the process of creating music than the highly physical act of sculpting clay. In Tchaikovsky, a new version of the original ballet of 1993, Eifman chose not to show the composer at work; rather he explored the inspiration for the work. This amounted to a cavalcade of characters straight out of Tchaikovsky’s famous ballets and operas tripping through the composer’s restless mind and set to some of his most familiar music.

To further illustrate his inner struggles, Eifman gave him a double – a second, perhaps Freudian, Tchaikovsky, who danced with the first and also danced the roles of the various demons and adversaries of the ballets and operas. The ballet became a catalogue of productions – gliding swans presided over by the wicked Von Rothbart, the nutcracker and battling mice in the thrall of the mysterious Drosselmeyer, conflicted Eugene Onegin and grasping Herman who longs for the secrets of the cards in The Queen of Spades. But rather than illuminating Tchaikovsky’s creative process, it merely offered a who’s who of his productions.

Eifman tackles Tchaikovsky’s emotional life, marked by bouts of depression and his complicated sexuality, through his relationship to his patroness, Nadezhda Von Meck (an excellent Maria Abashova), and his wife, Antonina Milyukova. The similarity to Rodin continues as Milyukova descends into madness, much like Camille Claudel. But this relationship feels forced as Milyukova (danced by the formidable Lyubov Andreyeva who also danced Claudel), clings to and pesters the composer and, in one over-the-top scene, wraps him up and nearly strangles him with yards of white fabric on their wedding day. There’s never much to their entanglement – Tchaikovsky runs from her like a scared rabbit in between frantic pas-de-deux.

Oleg Gabyshev as Tchaikovsky struck me as the perpetual victim, so traumatized that it seemed impossible for him to ever do a day’s work at the piano. A superb dancer, Gabyshev was obviously directed to appear helpless, since he was a powerful presence as Rodin in 2015. In Tchaikovsky, Eifman’s choreography has Gabyshev relentlessly aiming his chin or cheek upwards to the heavenly sphere, turning every movement of his limbs or torso into trite displays of sentiment.

As the Double, Sergey Volobuev was allowed the stature of the danseur noble. Volobuev had gravitas and charisma, helping to counter the picture of an artist without purpose, who seemed a mere pawn in the game of life. But it was difficult to tell just how this “other” Tchaikovsky represented the turmoil of the actual man; and because Volobuev portrayed multiple characters, confusion rather than clarity was the order of the day.

The ballet opened on the composer’s deathbed, where one is meant to experience his past as a kind of feverish dream. If this sounds heavy-handed, it was, but audiences never seem disappointed by Eifman’s approach. He is a champion of excess rather than understatement, the sweeping gesture rather than the intimate moment. At his best, his choreography reflects the grand drama of life in marvelously inventive ways; at its most mediocre, it wallows in sentiment and exaggeration. One thing is consistent, however: the high level of performance. Russian dancers with pliant, steely lower backs who can twist and swoop with abandon are the norm with this company.

When Eifman left the overwrought sentiment behind, the production soared. Most effective was The Queen of Spades section capturing the raucous life of soldiers at cards around a gaming table. Finally, some mirth was injected into the proceedings as the cards came to life in the form of Dmitry Krylov as the Joker, wearing a patchwork suit covered in spades, clubs, diamonds and hearts.

The scene had that clever Eifman touch at its best. Might one hope that he will tackle a full-length ballet drawn from this Tchaikovsky opera in the future? Perhaps it’s in the cards.

Jane Rosenberg


Leave a Comment