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Flash Review 1, 4-1: The Story (Ballet) So Far
Eifman's 'Karamazovs': Straight to the Solar Plexus

By Aimee Ts'ao
Copyright 2002 Aimee Ts'ao

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg presented five performances of "The Karamazovs" at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts Theater, March 22-24, to sold-out houses. The company's local publicist, Brenda Hughes of Encore Communications, told me how impressed she was that to stretch its marketing budget, the company only advertises in Russian language newspapers and through direct mail to the Russian community. The pity is that the non-Russian dance community and audience doesn't have a chance to see this company because they don't hear about it, if at all, until it's difficult to get tickets. As in the previous two years, the lobby this season was filled with Russian conversation, with only a rare tidbit of English.

First I will confess that I had never read Dostoyevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov"(and certainly didn't have time for the 800-plus pages before seeing the performance reviewed here), though in my youth I was obsessed with "Crime and Punishment" and also read "House of the Dead" and "Notes from the Underground." Perhaps my lack of intimacy with the Russian literary giant's masterpiece made me less critical of Boris Eifman's choreographic interpretation of the same, but I also feel that a ballet should stand on its own, irrespective of the spectator's having read the source material or not. How many of you have actually read E.T.A. Hoffman's "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" or "The Nutcracker of Nuremberg" by Alexandre Dumas, pere? Or Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" for that matter? Even without actually reading these works one already knows a lot about these stories, as they have become part of our culture through dance, theater, and film.

Since seeing "The Karamazovs" I was inspired to start the novel, and even after only reading the first section, 'The History of the Family,' it is clear to me that almost all details are undoubtedly lost in the translation from word to movement. Eifman still manages to communicate some of the larger themes, albeit without the complexity, though perhaps the streamlining works in his favor to appeal to a more general audience. I had invited a Russian ballet class pianist to go with me, but she declined saying that she had seen a video excerpt and didn't feel it dealt with the issue of spirituality and religion deeply enough. And, in any case, in his other works Eifman uses literature as a springboard to his own larger vision. "Hamlet" is the vehicle for the story of Catherine the Great and "Giselle" takes on the life of the great Russian ballerina Olga Spessivtzeva. I am not about to intellectually dissect "The Karamazovs" and analyze it in excruciating detail. Instead I want to convey the emotional impact of the production as a whole.

Reading the synopsis is essential unless you are Russian and know the story through genetic memory, or at the very least, from high school. (The education system in the former Soviet Union was far superior to what passes for learning in most of this country.) Had I not, I would have found it difficult to understand that the four men on stage were a father and his three sons, though it is immediately apparent that they are connected, even tightly bound together, despite how they may actually feel about each other due to their radically different personalities. Eifman cleverly turns part of a costume into a prop to illustrate this relationship. Fyodor Pavlovich, the Karamazov father, wears a shirt that is little more than shredded strips of cloth and which also echoes his disgusting state of debauchery. The three sons rip sections of it from him and become desperately trapped in the tangles they create as they dance around each other and their father. This theme emerges again toward the end of the first act when after being captured for the suspected murder of his father, Dmitri has his limbs tied with ropes and he is hoisted up by a rope center stage. In a frenzied "Maypole" dance weaving in and out and around he is wound up like an insect trapped in a spider's web, then released into a dizzying spin. While the impact of seeing an idea rendered visually is significant, the more intense reaction comes on the visceral level. The designs formed by the movement through space and the shapes of the bodies themselves combined with the dancers' absolute commitment to every gesture and step sets up a kinesthetic resonance in my body, and I suspect in many others as well. Forget about processing with your gray matter, the punch goes straight to your solar plexus.

Among the highlights are a number of pas de deux, trois and quatre between various combinations of Ivan, Dmitri, Alexei, Fyodor Pavlovich, Katerina Ivanovna(who loves both Ivan and Dmitri) and Grushenka (the cause of rivalry between Dmitri and his father). The unusual lifts and seamless partnering reveal the artistry of the dancers, who hide their technical prowess under effortless execution. Several other scenes that impressed me utilized the full corps de ballet. One, to Mussorgsky's 'Gnomes' from "Pictures at an Exhibition," evoked the surreality of a Hieronymous Bosch painting, the dancers still somewhat human but with unsettling distortions. The fight between Dmitri and his father which ends in the latter's murder uses a table that is lifted, up-ended, tilted and which finally carries off Fyodor Pavlovich's body, limbs straddling the table legs with the top perpendicular to the ground. The split second timing, acrobatic precision and the drunken madness of the whole crowd together make for a powerful theatrical picture, as did the previously mentioned rope scene.

One of Eifman's undeniable strengths is his deft hand in choreographing for large groups of dancers. They enter and exit so smoothly you often suddenly realize that the stage, a moment before teeming with bodies, has become nearly empty with only two dancers intimately engaged in a tender duet. Of his three ballets that I have seen (the others being "Tchaikovsky" with music by the same and "Hamlet" to selections of Beethoven and Mahler), with "the Karamazovs" I found the combination of music to be distracting. The pastiche of Rachmaninov, Wagner, Mussorgsky and Russian Gypsy folk songs lacks cohesiveness, and the badly read and recorded section of text that begins the second act feels out of place and far too didactic. Unfortunately, the poor sound system doesn't help matters either. I find "Karamazovs" much darker and starker than the other two works I've seen. In "Tchaikovsky" and "Hamlet" the sets and costumes were richer and more elaborate. The women in the corps de ballet wear beautiful gowns and the general opulence of the royal court pervades. "Karamazovs" has a more Germanic expressionist look to it. The women often wear the same costumes as the men when they're prisoners and part of the masses, and the set is a wall of platforms and bars with a spiral staircase that acts as the backdrop to Fyodor Pavlovich's orgies and also becomes the prison.

On the positive side are the dancers. All dance with such physicality, sensuality and passion that I would go to see the company regardless of the ballet they are performing. Igor Markov's portrayal of Alexey(a novice monk) beautifully balances spiritual ardor with human feeling. As the sultry, and then loving Grushenka, Vera Arbuzova is fabulous. Despite some shortcomings of the production, I would still see it again, though I want to finish the book first.

For me the most important question to ponder here is who else in the world today is successfully choreographing full-company evening-length ballets? I don't travel much these days, but of all that passes through here (and it's not much considering the astronomical cost of touring with dozens of dancers, costumes and sets) Eifman is at the top, despite his shortcomings. The rest of the meager offerings include a few bloated productions. In recent memory there are Lar Lubovitch's "Othello" (jointly commissioned by San Francisco Ballet and American Ballet Theater) and Angelin Preljocaj's "Le Parc" for the Paris Opera Ballet. Both are visually stunning, yet lack the choreographic splendor to match. "Le Parc" had sections I loved, particularly the three pas de deux, but the overall structure wasn't all that compelling. Smaller companies present evening-length pieces but in smaller spaces. I have noticed that most choreographers these days don't really know how to fill up an opera house stage because they rarely have the opportunity to work at that scale. Studio workshop showings and four hundred seat houses are hardly the fields to grow potentially large ballets, though are necessary steps in developing an artistic voice and movement vocabulary. Of the new choreographers the San Francisco Ballet has been promoting, only Yuri Possokhov actually knows how to create a huge picture visually and kinetically. His "Magrittomania" is a short piece, but has the elements necessary to paint the big canvass of the War Memorial Opera House stage. Is it any surprise that Possokhov trained and danced at the Bolshoi Ballet? When considering that culture's music, literature and dance, I can only imagine the vastness of the land and the intensity of the Russian character reflected in the arts. A generalization to be sure, but the scale of evening-length ballet on a large stage demands it be larger than life at times, while also allowing for contrasting moments of distillation and intimacy.

Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg performs Eifman's "The Karamazovs" April 10 and 11 at New York's City Center, followed by his "Pinocchio" through April 14. This week in the same venue, the company performs the choreographer's "Red Giselle" and "Don Juan and Moliere."

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