'Seagull' doesn't soar
Despite heroic performances, Eifman Ballet's "The Seagull" fails to capture the soul-wrenching poignancy of Anton Chekhov's classic story.
Author: LAURA BLEIBERG
Date: March 18, 2007
Publisher: THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Treplev, the suicidal hero of choreographer Boris Eifman's "The Seagull," is in a box.
At the start and end of the Russian choreographer's brand new ballet, Treplev was curled inside a metal cube. This expandable set piece (cleverly designed by Zinovy Margolin) was the apt symbol in an otherwise jumbled two-act adaptation of Anton Chekhov's late 19th century masterpiece, presented Friday by the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
Chekhov's "comedy in four acts" is about art, the creative process, and the mess that humans make of their lives. Eifman branched away from the original, but then would return to it in unexpected places. It made one wonder if anyone who hadn't recently read the play could follow what was happening, such as when the Trigorin character began reeling in an imaginary fish.
Chekhov's four main characters were denizens of the theater, and on the page, Treplev was an unappreciated playwright. Eifman shifted the story to the ballet studio, an echo of another and earlier ballet just seen at the center, John Neumeier "Death in Venice."
Eifman's Treplev is a choreographer, an original who thinks "outside the box" – hence that symbolic cube. But he's universally misunderstood. Arkadina, his diva-dancer-mother, falls asleep while watching his latest creation; Zarechnaya, his ballerina girlfriend, doesn't take him seriously; and Trigorin, the choreographer of boring, but successful ballets, dismisses him. Trigorin deals double blows by messing around with both Arkadina and Zarechnaya. He ultimately discards Zarechnaya – Chekhov's symbolic sea gull – and she ends up clothed in a cheesy tutu at a high-end, strip-club-shooting gallery.
The ballet did begin promisingly, with small, nuanced character introductions, notable for their light, whimsical touch. The choreographer even made us laugh, as when Treplev, affectingly portrayed by Dmitri Fisher, tried to teach some of his newfangled steps to Zarechnaya, danced large and ardently by the beautiful Maria Abashova.
The trouble inherent with this ballet-within-a-ballet format became all-too obvious: How to demonstrate a character's genius if the choreographer himself cannot come up with scenes of transcendent superiority? And on the flip side, how does a choreographer provide examples of a character's mediocrity without boring the audience?
Eifman's solutions were problematic. For Treplev's "new" work, he covered a handful of dancers in glowing white fabric to create a giant wriggling worm, a la Momix. Trigorin's academic ballet exercises progressed uninterestingly, wasting the talents of Eifman's lean, fearless dancers.
In an out-of-place and desperate diversion, a scene of pseudo hip-hop dancing was thrown in, Eifman getting aid from "consultants" Frenchman Sylvain Le Hesran, AKA Slyde, and from fellow countrymen Maxim Shakhov. A second act bump-and-grind number was more suitable to a Las Vegas show.
Eifman was most comfortable with the aggressive and acrobatic love duets for his principals, and solos of frantically paced bravura steps. These are his calling cards. The audience loved these displays, and the dancers' mighty dedication and athletic prowess were impressive.
Yuri Smelakov brought just the right haughtiness to his part as Trigorin. In a concluding solo he passionately expressed his character's ambivalence for the person and artist he had become. Likewise Nina Zmievets was stirringly displayed Arkadina's whipsaw reactions to her son – cradling him one minute and striking him the next. It was actually painful, however, to watch Zmievets's emaciated body in motion. It's time to discourage this ballerina body-model, just as some are frowning on too-thin runway mannequins.
As usual, Eifman's recorded musical selections, by Serge Rachmaninoff and Alexander Skryabin, were chosen for their manipulative possibilities. Eifman sound engineer Leonid Eremin composed the jarring electronic sonic interruptions. The stage backdrop was dominated by a bendable metal canopy, on which dozens of lights hung. Added to those were strobes and colored washes, and the ballet frequently resembled a night club act.
I will look forward, though, to seeing Fisher dance again, because he has tremendous talent. Hopefully, it will be in a ballet that's got nothing to do with boxes.