Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Art Among the Ruins: Rodin by Russia’s Eifman Ballet

The Eifman Ballet performing Rodin (All photos by Gene Schiavone)

St. Petersburg’s Eifman Ballet’s international reputation as a potent example of contemporary classical dance was fully evident when the troupe, lead by celebrated choreographer Boris Eifman, made its Toronto debut at the Sony Centre last week. In performing Rodin, Eifman’s two-act narrative ballet based on the life of French sculptor Auguste Rodin and his tempestuous relationship with fellow artist Camille Claudel, the 55-member Russian ballet company flew across the stage with a power-surge of energy, carving the air with alternatively spasmodic and smooth gestures to tell a story of tortured artistic genius. It was visually and viscerally explosive.

The ballet begins and ends in an asylum, with Camille Claudel (the wonderfully lithesome and dramatic Lyubov Andreyeva) stumbling wide-eyed through a gaggle of madwomen, doing a circle dance while dressed head to two in white: Swan Lake recast as someone’s personal nightmare. Rodin (the charismatic Oleg Gabyshev) appears amid these ghostly dancers like a dream figure, searching for the woman who was once his lover and his inspiration. Watching helplessly from the sidelines is Rose Beuret (the willowy Nina Zmievets), Rodin’s long-suffering wife.

In real life, the affair with Claudel wasn’t Rodin’s only marital indiscretion. (The great modern dance pioneer, Isadora Duncan, was another of his famous infidelities.) But the Claudel liaison was the most tragic, and it has attracted the most public attention. It is the subject of this 2011 ballet and Camille Claudel, the popular, Oscar-nominated 1988 film starring Isabelle Adjani and Gérard Depardieu. The Camille Claudel story is fascinating for several reasons, and not only because it is a love story gone terribly wrong. Besides never being acknowledged in her lifetime as the model, muse and helpmeet to the great Rodin – a slight which lead her publicly to accuse Rodin of stealing her ideas – Claudel suffered from mental illness, spending the last 30 years of her life in a psychiatric hospital and eventually dying there in 1943 at age 79. Claudel is the ultimate underdog, an unsung feminist heroine representing suppressed talent and torrid sex. A lethal combination.

Everything the audience needs to know about this psycho-sexual love story, from Rodin’s manipulative manhandling of his muses to Claudel’s disillusionment at being ultimately shut out of the fame and glory that she helped create within Rodin’s late 19th century Paris studio, is expressed by the choreography. Eifman’s sharp-edged gestural language and flowing dance pieces communicated themes of desire, jealously, betrayal, genius, sacrifice and madness without recourse to mime or other hackneyed systems of non-verbal communication to get the message across. While some scenes were over-long, if not over-the-top (the Can-Can number, while fun, was superfluous while the grape harvesting number was sentimental to a fault), the ballet as a whole exuded a cinematic quality that made it riveting to watch, start to finish. The Eifman dancers came across as actors whose superlative muscular control and dramatic commitment enable Eifman to express his unique choreographic voice.

Their enormous talent notwithstanding, credit for the company’s ability to communicate a readily understandable plot belongs to Eifman, who originally created the company – which this year is celebrating its 35th season – as a polished platform for his choreography and dance ideas. Born in Siberia, Eifman specializes in psycho-sexual ballets, of which Rodin is a recent example. Many of his works are adaptations of Russian novels and dramas, among them Anna Karenina, The Seagull, The Karamazovs and Onegin, revealing his attraction to psychologically driven narratives. Rodin is an original creation based loosely on biographical details from Rodin’s life. Appropriately, given that the main subject is a sculptor, the choreography looks moulded and twisted into chunks of emotive dancing stamped with beauty and destruction. Frequently, Eifman uses sculpted choreography quite literally, assembling static shapes of dancers into group vignettes that recreate some of Rodin’s greatest sculptural achievements, the monumental The Gates of Hell and The Burghers of Calais among them.

These set pieces are astonishing, presented to great visual effect with the support of Zinoviy Margolin‘s graphic, grid-like sets and Eifman and Gleb Filshtinsky‘s moody lighting design. The taped music, featuring a melange of 19th and early 20th century musical compositions by Jules Massenet, Camille Saint-Saëns, Maurice Ravel and Erik Satie (composers who were Rodin’s contemporaries), heightened the visual drama while also moving the ballet forward and backward in time. Eifman shows not only how these masterpieces were made but the human cost behind them. Genius, as Eifman presents it, is narrowly focused, narcissistic, and numbingly cruel. In the ballet, Claudel builds her sculpted pieces up only to smash them down again. Rodin does the same, but with people instead of artwork. Rodin raised Claudel on a pedestal, only to bring her crashing down.

Seen from this perspective, Rodin is more a tragedy than a celebration of artistic genius. Rodin’s ego, as grandiose as his sculptures, is presented in negative terms as a willingness to sacrifice the women he loved and who loved him in return to his art. In this imagined version of his life, carnage and creativity go hand-in-hand. But Eifman doesn’t pass judgment. In his archly Romantic program notes, Eifman describes Rodin’s manipulative practices, real and figurative, as “the incomprehensible mystery of the creative process.” He ends his ballet with an image of the artist hammering away at his raw chunk of stone, creating alone, but creating still, sculpture to outlast the ruins of a broken heart.

Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. Her first book, Paris Times Eight, is a national best-seller. Her new book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, has just been published by Greystone Books (D&M Books). Visit Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection and Paris Times Eight on Facebook, and check out www.deirdrekelly.com for more book updates

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