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Reviews » Kings of the Dance. Opus 3

Sculpture and Mania of a Muse
Author: ALASTAIR MACAULAY
Date: March 11, 2012
Publisher: The New York Times

Bad choreography crops up all too often, and yet nobody else today, now that Maurice Béjart and Roland Petit are no longer with us, makes the kind of awful ballet that is Boris Eifman’s forte. Ken Russell’s more sensationalist movies seem like models of restraint beside Mr. Eifman’s lurid, overemphatic, far-from-coherent oeuvre. Mr. Eifman flaunts all the worst clichés of psycho-sexo-bio-dance-drama with casual pride while he rushes headlong to commit a whole new set of artistic felonies.

The audience at City Center cheers him on ardently, as I remember it doing in 2007. (Much Russian is spoken in the foyers and little English.) The whole Eifman phenomenon — his company is the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg — brings up a clash of cultures. Program notes hail him as a creator of “psychological ballet” and even as a “choreographer-philosopher”; perhaps in Russia he is taken seriously along those lines.

Yet to many of us Mr. Eifman is a peculiar throwback. He is an exponent of crudely sensationalist trends that were fashionable in Europe several decades ago (Béjart and Petit were both approved by the Soviet artistic authorities in Leningrad, where Mr. Eifman began work in the 1970s) and have long been notorious elsewhere. Ballets like his two-act “Rodin” (new in 2011 and reaching these shores for the first time on Friday night at City Center) were much easier to find 30 years ago. I had hoped the species was extinct.

“Rodin” starts and ends in a mental hospital. Its real protagonist is not Auguste Rodin but his lover, co-sculptor and possible victim, Camille Claudel, who spent her last decades in one such institution. And so “Rodin” tries to give us sex, art, mania and martyrdom. Tries to. Mr. Eifman lacks the skill to depict any of these things seriously.


Nina Zmievets and Oleg Gabyshev of the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg in "Rodin" at City Center.

Perhaps the silliest scene is one in which Claudel, alone in her studio with a rectangular block of stone, starts sculpturing. She attacks it with both hands like a tympanist at full climax, punctuating her efforts now and then by turning to us and planting her wrist on her brow to indicate creative exhaustion, and then she recycles this series of gestures so it becomes a dance phrase. The point of the sex is to show Rodin’s manipulation of Claudel; still, the way in which he handles her groin, though unpleasant, has far more originality and artistry than the way she tackles sculpture.

As for mania, “Rodin” is one of those expressionist ballets (there are examples going back to the 1930s) in which the dancers aim long, wide-eyed stares out front at the audience. (Often the head hangs plaintively on one side, to indicate psychological distress.) Most gestures are reiterated forcibly. To show disturbance of a more advanced kind, you take one hand and clutch the opposite side of your body. (Try, for example, passing your left hand behind your back to grip your right elbow. Now hold this while staring at the audience as if in misery or anger and with your head tipping to one side.) No small gestures are permitted.

Were it not for the music you could say that everything in “Rodin” — the staggeringly coarse acting, the cartoon-expressionistic overemphasis, the reduction of art, love and psychosis to one big sensationalist stew — is of a piece. But Mr. Eifman cooks this recipe to an anthology of chunks (taped, of course) from the French late-Romantic musical repertory that, however contemporaneous with Rodin’s life, is shockingly ill-suited, scene by scene, to the subject matter.

Parts of Erik Satie’s “Gnossiennes” and “Gymnopédies,” so poetically controlled and evocative of faraway orders, accompany the “mental asylum” scenes and of Rodin’s frustrated domestic life. A nightmare scene occurs to the ecstatic finale from Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé.” A last return to the asylum is set to the transcendent Meditation dream-music from Massenet’s “Thaïs.”

Meanwhile it is amazing to find how indifferent Mr. Eifman is to making his story clear. The historic record of the Rodin-Claudel relationship does not always coincide with the program synopsis, and neither version helps you to decipher the stage action.

Still, the synopsis is a treat in its own terms: “Camille’s coming insanity is already near: her mind becomes bedimmed with an obsession”; “The Gates of Hell are created in sufferings”; “The sculptor is embarrassed”; “Camille is coming closer and closer to the edge of the abyss. Her work on Clotho, fearful anthem to ruthless Fate, exhausts her mental state completely”; “In his work of sacrifice, the sculptor wins the eternal life of an artist, bound with his muse for eternity.”

Some artists are bad because they so obviously fail to achieve what they intend. Others are bad because what they intend is rotten in the first place. Mr. Eifman fits right into both categories, to a spectacular degree. And his audience loves him all the way.