Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Dissidence in Dance: Boris Eifman and Red Giselle

A scene from Eifman Ballet's Red Giselle. (Photo courtesy of Eifman Ballet)

The Red Giselle is a many-layered, historically complex full-length work. Its choreographer, Boris Eifman, is no less complicated. He is the leader of the Eifman Ballet, the contemporary classical Russian ballet company from St. Petersburg currently on a 40th anniversary tour of North America. The company touched down in Toronto for three performances of Red Giselle at the Sony Centre, May 11-13. It next presents the work at New York City Center, June 2 through 11. But let's back up a minute. Contemporary. Classical. Russian. Ballet. These are words not usually found in the same sentence.

Russian ballet is a purist art form. Its origins can be found in the court of Catherine the Great in the 18th century, who brought sophistication to the Russian court by way of the French which she imported from Paris along with French ballet masters. Ballet in Russia has never been mere entertainment. It is a set of rules for idealized behaviour. Embodying that ideal is the ballerina, and in Russia the ballerina rules supreme. Russia is unique in that regard. No other nation reveres the ballerina as much; in Russia, she is both cultural icon and national symbol, a source of pride. Eifman knows the importance of the ballerina's iconography in Russia and pays homage to it in Red Giselle.

Born in Siberia in 1946 into a Jewish family, Eifman, a double outsider, first studied dance at Kishinev and then choreography at the Leningrad Conservatory, today the St. Petersburg Conservatory, whose music department counts Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich among its illustrious graduates. At the Conservatory, Eifman learned all about the high ideals and classical heritage of the Russian ballet. But he also learned something likely not written up in the school's syllabus: how to make controversial ballets, works which challenge the status quo.

Boris Eifman. (Photo courtesy of Eifman Ballet)
His tutor in stylized subversion was the experimental Soviet choreographer Leonid Jakobson, a fellow Jew born in 1904, who, though several decades older, was the first to encourage Eifman to develop his dance-making talent. Known as the iconoclast of Soviet ballet, Jakobson, or Yakobson as his name is also written, told Eifman that choreographers are not made; they are born. An innate innovator, Jakobson believed that classical dance was a tool of creative expression and not an end in itself. He used music to express his own sentiments and drew inspiration from the art of Rodin and Chagall. He favoured verisimilitude in movement. In 1930, when contributing to the making of The Golden Age, one of the great ballets of the Soviet era and set to Shostakovich, Jakobson incorporated Western vernacular dances like the fox trot, tango and tap dancing, considering them germane to a plot involving a Soviet football team in a Western city who brush up against degenerate influences. But his bold artistry did not endear him to the authorities.

Jakobson was soon after banned, censored, all but burned at the stake. Newspapers were forbidden to write about him. His ballets were often cancelled last minute. A victim of anti-Semitism, he was stripped of his position as head choreographer at the Kirov (now Mariinsky) and Bolshoi ballet companies. But he persevered, taking his ballets to the provinces and never losing sight of his craft.

A reprieve of sorts came in 1953 with the death of Stalin, after which time Jakobson made the original version of Spartacus. In 1969, he made Vestris, a solo for Mikhael Baryshnikov, which brought both of them widespread recognition. Less than six years later, in 1975, Jakobson died of cancer, so his success was short-lived. A book about him came out in 2015, entitled Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia. It describes his tragic story in more detail.

But, for our purposes, what is important to know is that Eifman has continued what Jakobson started. His own work is modelled after his mentor's in flirting with danger by making a strong statement. His earliest pieces were overtly political, a full-length ballet about Armenia, for instance. As with other Soviet choreographers active in the 1960s and 1970s, the idea was to push Russian ballet forward into brave new territory. No more swan queens. No more tutus. Eifman went further than the others in rejecting what he called the "predictability" of the Kirov and Bolshoi traditions. "I am not a preservationist," he has explained. As with Jakobson, his goal was to create a new dance language to break from the past.

In Eifman's case that language would be a blend of classical ballet with modern dance. But modern dance in Soviet Russia is not the same as modern dance elsewhere. Remember that the borders were closed when Eifman was coming of age as an artist more than 40 years ago. He never had the chance to see Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Paul Taylor or Twyla Tharp first-hand. If he had any outside influences they were Roland Petit, Maurice Béjart, John Neumeier and Jiri Kylian – contemporary European choreographers whose work he might have viewed on contraband videotape. Eifman's idea of modernism in ballet was a hyper-plastic, acrobatic, psychosexual art form that would reveal emotional truths. Initially, the authorities encouraged his approach. In 1977, they appointed him director of the Leningrad Theatre of Contemporary Ballet –the original of what is today the Eifman Ballet – with a mandate of drawing in young people to the ballet. Eifman would do it by appealing to their senses, their libidos, their guts. One of the first ballets he created for the company was Bivocality, also known as Two Voices, set to the music of Pink Floyd. The Soviet Union frowned upon rock music as Western, violent and disruptively erotic. The authorities were no longer sure.

Boris Eifman’s Rodin. (Photo: Stanislav Belyaev)
They issued Eifman a warning. But like Jakobson before him he did not back down. He made his work even more passionate, dramatic, theatrical, and sexually subversive. Then the authorities didn't just caution him. They took away his passport, and forbade him to travel. They denied his company state funding and rehearsal space. They branded his ballets pornographic and subjected him to constant censorship. "They tried to kill us," Eifman recalls. But he survived on box-office receipts, astonishing considering the atmosphere of economic deprivation, and on popular appeal. The rulers realized they would have bigger problems if they cancelled him. So they offered to let him leave the Soviet Union; they told him they would help him emigrate to Israel. Eifman refused to go.

He felt a strong attachment to the motherland. He made ballets out of Russian literature – the writings of Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky. He explored some of the same dark themes – creative genius at odds with society, the struggle between good and evil, and madness, in particular the insanity induced from living under a repressive regime.

Madness is a prevalent theme in Eifman's work. His version of Don Quixote put madness at the forefront of the Cervantes story. Rodin, which explores the relationship between the sculptor and his mistress and fellow artist, Camille Claudel, opens and closes in an insane asylum. Up & Down, an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, focuses on the story of a psychiatrist and his patient. Eifman is so fascinated by the turmoil of the human mind that he once considered doing a dance about Freud. He rejected the idea after determining that the father of psychoanalysis did not have a dramatic enough personal story to make it worth the effort.

For Eifman madness speaks to deceit and deception, a theme explored in his 1987 ballet, The Master and Margarita, based on the Mikhail Bulgakov novel and depicting political dissidents imprisoned in insane asylums as a form of state control. Eifman believed that with this work he would be locked up next. His ballet held a mirror up to Soviet society. But to his surprise after one viewing the state censor approved it -- without requesting any changes. That is when Eifman realized that perestroika was for real: "Overnight I went from being an enemy of the state to a national hero." Suddenly, he could travel. In 1988, Eifman took his company to Europe for the first time, followed by New York a decade later. The then-chief dance critic of the New York Times, Anna Kisselgoff, wrote in her review, "A ballet world in search of a major choreographer need search no more. He is Boris Eifman."

Olga Spessivtseva in Giselle, ca. 1920s.
What Kisselgoff had seen, what she based her assessment on, was Red Giselle. A mid-career masterpiece, the two-act ballet is loosely inspired by leading Diaghilev-era ballerina Olga Spessivtseva, who suffered from mental illness – a real-life person with drama written into her personal story. Also known as Spessiva, the ballerina born in Russia in 1895 had trained at the Imperial Ballet School before entering the parent company, quickly rising to the rank of principal dancer. Dark haired, doe-eyed and lithe, she was frequently compared to the great Pavlova, but favourably.

Critics called her ethereal and ravishing. Diaghilev thought her sublime, and chose Spessivtseva to dance opposite the great Vaslav Nijinsky on the Ballets Russes tour of America in 1916. The ballerina danced Le Spectre de la Rose in New York, and The Sleeping Princess, the Diaghilev ballet's reinterpretation of The Sleeping Beauty, in London. But she was best known for performing Giselle, the quintessentially Romantic ballet created in Paris in 1842, and celebrated for its ghostly second act, in which dancers in long and flowing white tutus hover in front of a midnight sky.

In the ballet, Giselle is a peasant girl who goes mad and then dies after discovering that her lover, Albrecht, is in reality a prince in disguise who has come to the village for a dalliance that would distract him from his responsibilities and obligations at court, which include a royal fiancée. Spessivtseva danced the role so convincingly that reviewers at the time called her performance style expressionistic even though it conformed perfectly to tradition.

The role made Spessivtseva a celebrity. Escaping the Soviet Union in 1924, she exiled herself to France, where she straight away became an étoile at the Paris Opera Ballet. She toured the world, as far as Australia and Buenos Aires, loved by all. And then she cracked. In 1946, Spessivtseva suffered a complete nervous breakdown in public (not the first time), and ended up in an insane asylum in New Jersey, where she languished for the next 20 years. Russian balletomanes found her in 1966 and moved her to Tolstoy Farm in upstate New York, a refuge for Russian émigrés, where in 1991 she died at age 96, the last surviving member of the famed Ballets Russes.

Eifman never knew her. He was in his 40s when he first learned of what had happened to her and it induced in him a powerful wave of emotion. He felt for her, of course. But he also saw in her story a parable for all the Russian artists who have ever suffered from oppression and and who have had to exile themselves from their country to be free of their tormentors. This is the main idea behind Red Giselle.

A scene from Eifman Ballet's Red Giselle. (Photo courtesy of Eifman Ballet)

It is not a bio-ballet. Spessivtseva is not even identified by name; the main character is called the Ballerina. But there are recognizable biographical details. In Red Giselle the ballerina trains amid the opulence of the Imperial Ballet, later becoming trapped in a new socialist state run by thugs who beat on artists. Spessivtseva knew the type well. In real life, though it is hard to fathom, she married a KGB agent. In the ballet he is the brutish man in black, the character known only as the Commissar.

Spessivtseva's personal association with a Soviet secret agent haunted her. It made her fellow dancers suspicious of her and likely drove her into paranoia. After leaving both the Soviet Union and her sadistic husband behind, she spoke often of having visions of a man following her. But was that a hallucination or was it the truth? In Spessivtseva's case, reality and illusion, sadly, did mesh. The dancer identified with Giselle too much.

Eifman's ballet mourns the loss of her talent. But it also celebrates her achievements. The clue is the word "red" in the title, which stands for Red Scare, Red Revolution, the flow of blood during the Lenin and Stalin years when millions were killed in the name of communism. But in Russia red also symbolizes majesty and supremacy. Red Giselle is about a Russian ballerina who was a great Giselle, a legend in her own time.

The ballet attempts to rise to her heights. Eifman has included in his choreography a lot of high lifts, a lot of leg extensions, a lot of tall people. Fun fact: to become a member of the Eifman Ballet, which has 50 dancers, females must have a minimum height of 5'7" while the men must be at least 6'1". Eifman likes tall dancers because they give him long, lean lines. So it's a distinctive look, love it or hate it. 

Eifman splits opinion down the middle. People are not indifferent when watching one of his ballets -- outraged, maybe, but never bored. His critics occupy one of two camps. Those who hate him include Robert Gottlieb in New York, who repudiates him as garish, unmusical, over the top. Judith Mackrell in London, meanwhile, calls his work "torridly excessive and vividly Russian," which might not be a compliment. Vogue, on the other hand, praises it as exuberant, exhilarating, boldly expressive. Me? I say Eifman's ballets are visually and viscerally dynamic, and not slavish to what has come before – although I could do without the canned music.

But even if you don't like the work, you have to admire the man. Eifman, now 70, is a ballet survivor. He has endured political upheavals and years of artistic censorship to come out on top. Recently, a $200-million dance academy opened in his name in St. Petersburg. As in the beginning, the objective is to bring more young people into the ballet. You can certain that Eifman will do it. "I don't create for the ballet critics or the ballet purists," he says. "I create for the people." A rebel to the end.

– Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large. On May 24 (12:30pm), she will be giving a lecture entitled The Beatles: Still in Style for the Women's Art Association of Canada in Toronto. For more information, please visit here

1 comment:

  1. The last member to pass away was not Olga Spessivtzeva. Dame Alicia Markova passed in 2004. Markova was hired by Diaghilev at age 14.