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Dance Review:

EIFMAN BALLET OF ST. PETERSBURG at the Auditorium Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

For its third annual engagement through Sunday at the Auditorium Theatre, the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg has expanded its offerings to include two full-length works that delve into the torments of artistic genius: "Tchaikovsky: The Mystery of Life and Death" and "Don Juan and Moliere."

Headed by visionary choreographer-designer-storyteller Boris Eifman, this extraordinary Russian dance company boasts classical ballet technique so sharp it has the power to impale viewers’ souls. Yet the artistic director – who also happens to be a provocative illusionist – contorts, expands and turns the classical line inside out as if revealing the paradoxical inner rhythms of our human fiber.

Founded in 1977 but not allowed to tour internationally until 1988, the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg made its U.S. debut only four years ago in New York City. The company finally arrived here in 2000 but, despite its acclaim, does not attract large crowds. At the two performances I attended, several empty rows were disappointingly evident on the main floor. The bulk of viewers consisted of members of the city’s Russian community. We can only hope that future engagements will spark the curiosity of more diverse audiences – both balletomanes and newcomers to the form.

Previous Chicago runs have featured Eifman’s "Red Giselle" and "Russian Hamlet: The Son of Catherine the Great" -- brilliant studies of madness, oppression and absolute power. The choreographer rarely takes on subtle topics. This time, Eifman approaches the creation of art from two divergent styles – one intriguing but flawed; the other a transcendent experience.

The less successful of the two programs is "Tchaikovsky: The Mystery of Life and Death," Eifman’s first full-length ballet from 1993. Perhaps he was still searching for his own multidisciplinary artistic voice and not quite free of the traditional balletic structure. Heavy-handed and melodramatic to the point of parody, "Tchaikovsky" features astonishing extensions and furious and enticing port de bras hampered by the choreographer’s need to vividly telegraph every emotion. Eifman does, however, stretch the psychological boundaries by choosing Tchaikovsky music generally not associated with his famed ballets.

The ballet aims to express the titular Russian composer’s struggles with his homosexuality – a fact he kept hidden in order to work within the conservative 19th century musical establishment. "Tchaikovsky" opens with a starkly stylized death-bed scene as the composer thrashes about in a fit of dementia. He is haunted by the familiar characters from the ballets for which his scores are legendary: Carabosse from "Sleeping Beauty," Herr Drosselmeyer from "The Nutcracker" and those iconic winged creatures from "Swan Lake." So this piece also makes layered statements about the Romantic era of ballet at the same time it unveils Tchaikovsky’s nightmarish suppression of his sexual orientation.

The composer also is held captive by his needy benefactress Madame Nadezhda von Meck (a taut and razor-angled Vera Arbuzova) and his clingy wife Antonina (the gorgeously pliable Yelena Kuzmina), who eventually loses her mind after her husband’s repeated spurns. Eifman has split his protagonist into the persona Tchaikovsky presented to the world (portrayed with wounded conviction by Albert Galichanin) and his doppelganger – his true being, who also serves as a seductive male force (the ambiguously alluring Igor Markov). Completing this symbolic triumvirate of longing is technical marvel Alexei Turko as the composer’s idealized Prince.

Contrary to the late Russian choreographer George Balanchine’s famous claim that "ballet is woman," this work goes to great lengths to prove that Tchaikovsky’s every waking hour was consumed by thoughts of unattainable men within the ballet world. And, like the evil Von Rothbart’s spell that turns women into swans, the composer is held captive by a world that refuses to grant him the freedom of true human expression.

All of these ideas are daring and compelling – and certainly not addressed on stage in the conventional ballet world, with its rigidly prescribed gender roles. Yet – unlike his other works that seamlessly join ambiguous subtext with grounded narrative -- Eifman falters by not placing his characters within a clearly developed context. His dancers become stock figures rather than flesh-and-blood beings.

Most problematic is Eifman’s difficulty with building tension. Tchaikovsky reviles Antonina from the start – most notably when he attempts to strangle her with her veil on their wedding day. Madame Von Meck hovers over him like a demonic sorceress. And, since we so obviously know that the composer prefers to surround himself with men, there’s no genuine mystery. The story, as abstract as it may appear, unfolds quite literally before our eyes. Tchaikovsky, at no point, pretends to like the women in his life. He, therefore, demonstrates no hidden anguish.

And, apart from being hyper-classical in its variations, the ballet positions the women as bloodsuckers or lunatics (although Tchaikovsky’s pas de deux with Antonina and her ragged straight jacket is a beguiling study in movement invention). In this version, female swans serve as a disruptive force that destroys the protagonist’s fantasy of a winged male corps de ballet. There’s also a bombast and sensationalism – from an orgy atop a poker table to grand motifs of strangulation – here that, thankfully, Eifman smoothed out in his later works.

One of those later masterpieces is his 2000 "Don Juan and Moliere," an ingenious theatrical-dance diorama of the creative process. This complex tiered study of deception, artifice and role-playing (on and off stage) is worthy of a dissertation. Eifman parallels the French playwright Moliere’s feverishly pitched and, at times, unfulfilled life with the callous seductions and deadly guilt of his fictitious nobleman, Don Juan. Woven into this illusion versus reality sequence is the world of 17th century theater, where the frustrated playwright-director Moliere berates his cast for not harnessing the inner truths of their characters.

Eifman graciously masters the intricacies of zig-zagging in and out of the portals of time, fiction, reality and the artistic brain. More an empowering metaphoric theater piece than a ballet (although the dancing is among the most demanding and heart-stopping I’ve ever witnessed), "Don Juan and Moliere" takes on Pygmalion-like proportions as we witness characters emerge from the writer’s mind. You could almost hear the Alexandrine couplets in Eifman’s articulate, measured combinations.

Eifman also mirrors Age of Reason theatrical conventions, from commedia dell’arte-style masked clowns to an elevated dazzling Sun King-like noble figure right out of the film, "Amadeus." No doubt inspired by Mozart’s "Don Giovanni," the choreographer frames the work in Mozart’s music (together with Hector Berlioz’s) but does not replicate the opera. For example, Mozart’s "Requiem" accompanies Don Juan on his descent into hell.

Slava Okunev’s painterly sets and costumes evoke their own dramatic universe – particularly the unforgettable opening sequence of Don Juan’s graphic seductions in a convent presided over by an El Greco-lit cross and, later, a lush and buttery country scene – a Vermeer portrait come to life. The multidimensional touches are too numerous to mention – from Moliere speaking through a "mask" of writing paper to the playwright’s anguished duet with a chair to Arbuzova’s death-defying triple spins in the air as she clutches a dagger, to a brilliantly synchronized coquettish dinner sequence and the darting red specters of the Inquisition.

As Moliere, Markov – through lucid holistic body language – visibly brims with an unfettered creative force. Kuzmina and Arbuzova reprise their otherworldly movement pyrotechnics as Madeleine, Moliere’s loyal confidante, and Armande, Madeleine’s flighty daughter whom he marries. But the most breathtaking performance is delivered by the sleek and flawless Turko as Don Juan. He reminds us of the capacity of the human body in electrifying motion and refined stillness to tap into the enigmatic realm of spiritual mystery.

This ballet gives eloquent voice to the theatrical vocation. The final scene of "Don Juan and Moliere" – candles flickering around an empty armchair – serves as a monument to artistic legacy. •

Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg performs March 16 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and March 17 at 2 p.m. at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. Tickets: $27-$57. Call 312-902-1500.

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