A decidedly polarizing figure that prides himself on creating what he calls, “a new type of theater—Russian psychological ballet theater,” Boris Eifman, according to naysayers, indulges in bombast, his storytelling skills often as thin as prosciutto and his choice of pastiche musical accompaniments (always heard on tape), enigmatic and frustrating to the point of being bizarre.
His loyal and rabid audiences, however, continue to worship him.
Having founded his eponymous troupe in 1977, Siberian-born Eifman, considered one of Russia’s most popular contemporary ballet choreographers, has created more than 40 works for his technically brilliant dancers, many of which are based on historical figures or literary masterpieces, the latter including The Seagull and Anna Karenina.
Lately, though, it seems as if the 68-year old has become obsessed with psychiatry, madness and mental institutions, these frenetic forays into nut house territory also bringing Eifman gobs of attention: His “Don Quixote, or Fantasies of the Madman,” had this reviewer dub a 2011 performance, “a ‘Snake Pit’ in pointe shoes;” his “Up and Down,” which began as a two-act adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, and had its west coast debut in early June at Orange County’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts (it premiered in January), is set in the roaring ‘20s, its protagonists a shrink and the schizophrenic patient with whom he falls in love.
And now there is yet another terpsichorean cuckoo’s nest: the 2011 two-act ballet “Rodin” begins and ends in a lunatic asylum. Eifman’s take on the problematic relationship between sculptor Auguste Rodin and his younger lover/muse, Camille Claudel, a sculptress and erstwhile protégée whose last 30 years were spent in the funny farm, featured the opening night leads, Oleg Gabyshev as the artist and Lyubov Andreyeva his concubine, the very same couple that headed Eifman’s “Up and Down” the previous weekend.
We don’t know what Freud would have said, but we call the double-header pairing a marvel in terms of psychological and physical stamina, the duo making for compelling viewing, with the accompanying 50 plus dancers also embodying Eifman’s contorted yet fluid movement style, a surfeit of exaggerated gestures, six o’clock extensions and corporeal extravagance adding to what often appears as onstage pandemonium.
And while Eifman may be the first dancemaker to plumb this particular artistic relationship, the Rodin/Claudel dynamic has already been the beating heart of two films, the most recent starring Juliette Binoche as the titular tortured soul in Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915, released two years ago. There is also no dearth of written material on the subject that, in Eifman’s hands (or self-aggrandized mind), basically amounts to sex, delirium, art and agony.
The opus opens with the female corps, a bevy of bonnet and nightie-clad inmates (costumes courtesy of Olga Shaishmelashvili), their hands a-flutter when not tugging at an emoting Andreyeva, before this mise-en-scène flashes back to Rodin’s studio. There, inexplicably, male dancers-cum-assistants-cum-living sculptures cavort as if from “West Side Story,” with Gabyshev stalking the stage in lycra pants à la Saturday Night Fever, albeit executing multiple pirouettes and ridiculously high, i.e., gorgeous split jumps, to boot.
His first duet with Andreyeva, who sported overalls in another show of anachronistic garb, was, nevertheless, provocative, the sculptor darting erotically through his subject’s legs. But, as set to Debussy’s overly familiar Clair de Lune, the pas de deux lost juice, Gabyshev’s powerful lifts and her ship’s prow-like posturing aside.
As Rodin’s model, Claudel is there, of course, in order to be molded to his taste, Andreyeva’s Louise Bourgeois neo-arachnid moves—enticing, come-hither deep pliés—effectively snaring the sculptor, giving his lifelong companion and eventual wife, Rose Beuret (a tenacious Yulia Manjeles), more than her share of angst.
One of Beuret’s solutions—much like that of any good Jewish mother—is to feed Rodin, relentlessly, as it were, hamming it up in the process.
But, like hit man Mike Ehrmantraut advising Walter White on the concept of “no half measures” in Breaking Bad, so it is with Eifman’s “Rodin.” Movement histrionics take precedent over cohesion, be they in the dazzling but peacockish solos, daring duets, including Andreyeva trying to find solace in another lover’s arms (a smoldering Dmitry Fisher), and trios, with poor Beuret in perpetual distraught mode, appearing très old maidish and the antithesis of French chic.
The male corps, frequently looking as if they’d stepped out of the musical, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” also distracted from the dance drama, with mixed group numbers featuring silent screams, angry fist-clenching and pyramids of bodies meant to represent sculptures-in-progress.
The end result, alas, is a balletic show-and-tell, with all too much show and very little tell, the depth, such as it is, flimsy and wanting.
Moving back and forth through time, the work, more soap operatic than anything truly heartfelt, featured an act II opener wherein Rodin recalled his first encounter with Rose—meeting cute (or drunk, perhaps)—at a wine festival that recalled the grape-stomping episode of I Love Lucy. A baffling music hall can-can number, replete with petticoats and saucy caps, also felt tacked-on, indeed, somewhat desperate.
Is it possible that all of this frou-frouing could also have contributed to Claudel’s encroaching madness?
Seriously, in addition to the above scenic bluster, there was an unfortunate thread of misogyny insinuating itself throughout “Rodin;” the sexualization of the asylum patients one such incident. There was also a risible scene in which Claudel, alone in her studio working on Clotho (one of the Three Fates), banged maniacally on a block of stone, this untoward action—seen again as a movement phrase—trivialized both her humanity and her art.
Add to this an astonishingly clichéd musical mash-up of late-Romantic French works, including Satie’s Gnossienne No. 3 and Massenet’s Méditation from his opera, Thaïs, and the dancing—ardent, intricate, exhaustive—was ultimately belittled.
The plus side also included Zinovy Margolin’s tiered minimalist sets, the clean lines of these geometric-type cages making for lush silhouettes that were enhanced by the sumptuous lighting design of Gleb Filshtinsky and Eifman.
It’s often said that there is a fine line between genius and insanity. With Boris Eifman exploiting both of these states of mind, one is tempted, instead of demarcating, to diagnose the Russian with his own case of, well, narcissistic personality disorder.
Please pass the Prozac!