Title: Eifman Ballet Revolutionizes Russian Classic With Mixed Results
Author: Emma Krasov
Date: May 08, 2009
Onegin, staged by Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg and based on a classic poem by Alexander Pushkin and music by Tchaikovsky, premiered at Cal Performances' Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley the first days of May. Boris Eifman, the founder and artistic director, is internationally recognized for his revolutionary approach to classical dance, his victorious struggle with the oppression by the Soviets, and his amazing proficiency (over 40 ballets in the last three decades). Onegin became the last part of his "literary" trilogy of ballets, which also includes Chekhov's The Seagull (2007) and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (2005).
If the latter captured the high tension and deep soul searching of Tolstoy's prose perfectly with the means of choreography, the other two remained mostly excellent ballets that have very little to do with the original literature. (Not that they were any less fascinating to watch because of that). In its literary form, Eugene Onegin is a subtly, almost playfully told story of many facets and tribulations of a "mysterious Russian soul." The conflicts are varied, while all encompassed in a single plot: boy meets girl, boy dumps girl, boy finds her again in the arms of another, he tries to win her back, but it's too late… The greatest Russian poet explores his characters' conflicting traits of superficiality and depth, moral surfeit and emotional hunger, and makes them experience pure love, dark passion, the inevitability of loss, and the prevalence of honor. The failure to follow poetry in the case of Eifman's Onegin must be attributed to the choreographer's decision to transport early 19th century characters to post-coup 1991 Yeltzin's Russia, and to turn the poem's blue blood aristocrats into blue-collar simpletons with their respective [anti]aesthetics. Thus half of the Pushkin's story became immediately irrelevant. The original Olga was not engaged in a hot and heavy sexual relationship with Lensky, and the latter was only "dreaming about the upcoming wedding night" before being killed at a tender age. By Pushkin, he could never attain intimacy with his beloved. Tatiana's clairvoyant dream was not as much about her hot and heavy coitus with Onegin as about his duel with Lensky – his friend, and her future brother in law. Despite what's happening onstage, Tatiana was not a slut, who married for money and enjoyed her "new" status in society. She was not taken into marriage from unwashed masses to become a ring leader's trophy wife... When in Pushkin's story Tatiana refuses to accept Onegin's belated love on the premise that she "belongs to another now and would be faithful forever," somehow we believe it, even though the times have changed and in this day and age honor for many sounds like a rather outdated notion. Eifman admits that by making Onegin a contemporary piece he wanted to make it attractive for the youth of today, and that he succeeded in this. But what price success? If you are seasoned, wise, and sophisticated, all of which often comes with "sobriety, obesity and growing old" [William Kentridge] what is it about trying to look simple, crude and vulgar? If you are so much above the crowd, why fight it? There are many young and vulgar out there – they will take what's theirs; they will deliver the simple truth of their inexperience... Should the ballet in question be called "Gangstas" or "Pimps and Sluts" it would make measurably more sense. However, the choreographer's true nature shines in refined scenes like "Mourning," and the unparalleled beauty of his dance and the notoriously superhuman physique of his dancers still create an unforgettable encounter with the very particular brand of Eifman's magic. For information on programs and tickets, call 510-642-0212, or visit calperfs.berkeley.edu. Photo by Anton Sazonov: Oleg Gabyshev (Onegin) and Maria Abashova (Tatiana) of Eifman Ballet.