Eifman Ballet
Kings of the Dance Tickets

Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg

Title: 'Don Quixote' tilts at new windmills in Costa Mesa
Date: April 30, 2011

It would be easy to dismiss Boris Eifman's "Don Quixote" as a heavy-handed metaphor for Soviet-era repression. But that put-down ignores the richness and ingenuity of the choreography, displayed gloriously by Eifman's gifted and dedicated company at the Segerstrom Center on Friday.

First off, nobody should downplay the conditions that Eifman, born in Siberia in 1946, undoubtedly observed as a younger man. There's a reason that Eifman's version of Cervantes' story plays so well to an audience of his countrymen (and it seemed as if every member of Southern California's Russian expatriate community was in attendance on Friday). As a symbol, his insane asylum setting is as subtle as a sledge hammer, but to many Russian observers of a certain age I'm sure it seems poetically apropos.

Regardless of what you might think of Eifman's concept, it inspired him to create some hauntingly beautiful choreography.

Eifman's Don Quixote (Sergey Volobuev) is an aging dreamer trapped in a forbidding mental institution run by a stylish-looking martinet, a doctor who rules her world with a shrill whistle (Yulia Manzheles).

The "patient," as the program calls him, enlists his fellow inmates in various activities, treating them as if they were his own rag-tag ballet company. His knight's spear first appears as an improvised ballet barre in a hilarious parody of a technique class. The asylum's inhabitants, a barely controllable mob dressed in flyaway white garments, are malleable yet menacing. Sometimes they turn against the old Don and his friend, a patient who imagines himself to be Sancho Panza (Alexander Melkaev). Sometimes they bend to his will.

Everybody bends to the doctor's orders, and she has mysterious ways of controlling them. Besides the whistle, sometimes her instrument of submission is a large hoop, which Don Quixote reluctantly wears as a harness; sometimes she mesmerizes him with a deftly controlled bouncing ball.

What does it all mean? Who knows, but it's fascinating to watch.
Eifman's choreography becomes less interesting when the old patient's fertile imagination bursts through to an idealized Barcelona, where the "Don Quixote" story becomes more familiar. Eifman dutifully salutes Petipas' famous 19th-century version of the story in scenes that stick more or less to the original tale: Kitri (Natalia Matsak) is promised to a foppish nobleman, Gamache (Vladimir Dorokhin) by her money-grubbing fool of a father Lorenzo (Igor Poliakov), but she's in love with dashing Basil (Alexei Turko).

These scenes play out with color and appropriate pageantry, and Turko and Matsak make charming young lovers. But there's no doubt where Eifman's muse resides: back in the asylum. That's where this ballet's most fascinating choreography is found – and its most fantastical elements. (A trio of floundering, scowling puppets might be a bit too much, though, even for Communist-hating ex-patriots).

Eifman's "Don Q" is a gift to character dancing.

Volobuev, a windmill of flailing arms and legs, is brilliant as delusional Don Quixote. Melkaev's performance as Sancho Panza is a study of sidekick-character traits as interpreted by Russian ballet and synthesized by Eifman.

And Manzheles, tall, whippet thin and exquisitely controlled, is astonishing in her regal menace and strange beauty. It's hard to take your eyes off her.

Sometimes Eifman's "Don Quixote" skirts the edge of bathos. But the sincerity of his inspiration saves the work.

Like Eifman's asylum patient, many Russians lived in a place of despair and hopelessness. "Don Quixote" offers a message only a snob could hate: that our faith in the power of human goodness and our imaginations can deliver us from even the most wretched circumstances.

Contact the writer: 714-796-7979 or phodgins@ocregister.com