What a wonderful performance of “Tchaikovsky: The Mystery of Life and Death” by Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg! The company has just concluded its tour in New York at the City Center as part of its North American tour to celebrate its 40th anniversary.
Never having seen Eifman Ballet before, I was blown away by the originality of the production, the unique choreographic style, the very subtle and intricate treatment of the theme, and the depth of emotions expressed in this ballet. I would call Eifman’s style “post modern”—he has a unique take on classical themes and makes very interesting, personal interpretations, and so courageous in exploring “taboo” subjects as well.
The dance, also know as “Tchaikovsky: Pro et Contra,” has a balanced cast of male and female dancers, but definitely more male-centric than the usual classical ballets. All the dancers are very strong in their technique and as one would expect of Russian dancers, the flow of their upper body is pure elegance and poetry.
The story in the ballet—an exploration of Tchaikovsky’s complex inner world, his desperation and frustration in not being able to express and fulfill his homosexual desires in the conservative society to which he was born, touched me on a very deep level.
The choice of using Tchaikovsky’s symphonic pieces throughout the ballet, rather than the actual scores for the various ballets depicted (Swan Lake, Nutcracker, Eugene Onegin and Queen o f Spades), was tasteful and excellent. I cried throughout the first act, with the music accentuating my emotions, and later on it was the Symphonie Pathétique that really tore at the chords of my heart!
If I were to compare the two most known contemporary Russian choreographers of today—Boris Eifman and Alexei Ratmansky, I honestly prefer the former. There is a sophisticated sense of unity in the on-stage presentation despite the diversity and intricacy of the story line. Sometimes, when watching Ratmansky’s treatment of individual movements within a group, I can’t help but feel a sense of discord and disorientation. For the individual movement phrases, I also lean toward Eifman’s style. But really, it is the emotional aspects of a well-narrated dramatic story by Eifman that deeply touched me. Nothing beats a story well told, and this one was put in a post-modern frame—with none of those blasé transitions or endings of a fairy tale.
The interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s tragic and tormented life is a highly personal one, yet one that resonates among so many of his fans, past and present. Some of the scenes have even been considered and condemned as pornographic, which is why I think Eifman is so courageous in his artistic expression.
Most of the audience members were Russians. I have never been in the company of so many Russians! I chatted with some of them and asked if they had seen Eifman Ballet before. “Yes, a couple of times!” The enthusiasm they showed was palpable, especially when Boris Eifman came on stage to give a curtain call. They cheered and shouted “Bravo” multiple times, giving him and the whole troupe a standing ovation.
I was surprised to see so many empty seats in the theater though. Perhaps everyone was out enjoying the nice warm weather—the first true summer’s day in New York. Or perhaps because this ballet and the other one they are performing, “Red Giselle,” have been performed here in the U.S. before. Regardless, this is quality and the Russians know it! When the company toured in Hong Kong a few years ago, I heard the tickets were sold out. They did even better there than here, to my surprise. In any case, I wish more Americans would go and see this company. Their next stop: California and then Montreal.