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(Originally appeared in The Chicago Tribune, April 8, 2001)

EIFMAN BALLET OF ST. PETERSBURG

REVIEW BY LUCIA MAURO

To call Boris Eifman a choreographer would be to drastically undermine an artist who interlaces elements of literature, cinema, visual art and high drama into his probing dance panoramas. The founder-artistic director of the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg, whose 1999 "Russian Hamlet: The Son of Catherine the Great" made its much-anticipated Chicago premiere at the Auditorium Theatre Friday night, is more like a bold but benevolent sorcerer. He expertly swirls historic periods and balletic styles into a lush and sprawling commentary on basic human urges.

Last year, this classically infused experimental Russian company debuted in Chicago with Eifman's "Red Giselle," a ferociously wrenching tribute to the late mentally tormented prima ballerina Olga Spessivtseva. In "Russian Hamlet," he pares down Shakespeare's tragedy of a tormented prince faced with avenging the murder of his father to its allegorical motivation: lust for absolute power. In this version, the Empress - inspired by the notoriously brutal rule of Catherine the Great - spins a treacherous web aided by her lover, the "Favorite," to keep her only son and heir in a perpetual infantile state.

Eifman, therefore, is not interested in a linear rendering or reimagining of the classics as much as orchestrating a dramatic-metaphoric excavation into the human psyche. That's not to say his works are somber and heavy handed. Humor and urgency merge in this grandiose yet microscopically focused production. "Hamlet" is not merely relocated to a Russian landscape; the play is a catalyst for re-examining the soul-crushing alienation of unbridled ambition.

"Russian Hamlet," driven by vigorous selections from Beethoven and Mahler, is set in a tarnished and tilted 18th century rotunda, whose disproportionate perspective gives the effect of unattainable omnipotence and an order spinning wildly out of control. Eifman the illusionist transforms his extraordinary dancer-actors into disembodied skulls and, to further the ballet's motif of impalement, has the Empress writhe dangerously around two elevated spears.

Yet despite this work's seething carnality, it never succumbs to the comically antiquated pantomime associated with classical ballet. Nor does it wallow in melodrama. Eifman takes the classical line and meticulously stretches and nudges it off kilter to reach a figurative sphere.

This rigorous approach is most evident in Yelena Kuzmina's super-human extensions as the indefatigable but spiritually isolated Empress. Her pliable limbs are as eloquently twisted as her schemes; and her malleable body seems to be a moving canvas for Eifman's agonized geometric contortions. Kuzmina's complex queen is aided in her insatiable desires by Albert Galichanin's chiseled and taut Favorite. Igor Markov turns in a tenderly nuanced performance as the Empress' ineffectual son - who literally cannot extricate himself from his mother's endless train.

Alina Solonskaya as the conniving Wife of the Heir and Alexandre Rachinsky's bone-chilling Ghost of the Heir's Father deliver stirring performances.

Images of birth and death snake through this modern dance macabre. The staging, with textured lighting by Eifman and operatic sets and costumes by Slava Okunev, even takes on a womb-like configuration.

"Russian Hamlet" treads a theatrical terrain across generations of tyranny. It is at once emotionally aggressive and savagely sexual. •
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