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Flash Review 3: Eifman! Eifman! Eifman!
In NYC with Ballet's Puppetmaster

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2002 Susan Yung

NEW YORK -- Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg brought premieres of "Don Quixote" and "Pinocchio" to City Center in its recently concluded fifth consecutive New York season. Boris Eifman has shown with these premieres that he is not content to reproduce his own formula for success, for better or worse. The emphasis has shifted from highly theatrical scenes involving intricate physical interplay to more loosely rendered narrative takes. The striated lighting and fog machines are still present, but the new works are as not as reliant on dazzling scenic props (Slava Okunev designed sets for both ballets) as on sheer kinetics to move the story along.

Eifman provokes controversy in paying homage to his predecessors by re-creating classic tales and using composers' music in his new interpretations while manipulating story and score to his whim. His ballets raise questions about his own role as an egomaniac: In "Pinocchio," the evil magician, Karabas, as described in the program, "dreams of turning the world into a huge puppet theatre and of becoming its producer/dictator." Sounds oddly like Eifman's role -- naturally, in regard to his company and its members -- but also apropos the pantheon of ballets, operas, and musicians' archives he steadily raids.

"Pinocchio," to an uninspiring "free interpretation of Jacques Offenbach" by Timur Kogan, was the more successful of the premieres, watched on April 12. Young Pinocchio was danced by guest artist Yevgeny Likhanov, a technical dynamo who jumped high with no apparent plies, and maintained rigidity throughout his body while portraying the inanimate wooden carving. The Good Fairy was performed by Vera Arbuzova, a typically Eifman-esque figure -- long, long limbs diminishing the relative size of the head, an exaggerated Balanchinean ideal. Arbuzova's movement seemed a bit brittle, but still elegant and serene. Pinocchio as a human was danced by Yuri Smekalov, also incredibly long-limbed, who was carried more by his dashing looks and style than his sound technique. The corps energetically portrayed townsfolk, letters of the alphabet, pirates, fishes, sinister donkeys, circus members, and police.

Alexander Rachinsky played Karabas, flinging his purple cape about his head, and twining together the strings binding a group of marionettes. Rachinsky also danced the lead role in "Don Quixote," in which his height worked to great effect -- he looked as if he had walked right out of a painting by El Greco. However, he danced one segment wearing faux armor, which clanked plastically and generally got in the way. The role of The Doctor was danced by Yelena Kuzmina, stunning in a fitted white gown with Eifman's signature floor-length circle skirt, which accentuated her lucid arabesque penches.

Arbuzova portrayed Kittri, the town's most eligible bachelorette, kicking her head in back attitude leaps and landing from grand jetes in high arabesques. She was paired frequently with Yuri Ananyan as an earnest suitor; their partnering sequences produced some awkward moments. Ananyan seemed uncomfortable in some of the virtuoso, dancier sequences, landing sloppily from double tours en'lair. Technique for its own sake is not as high a priority for Eifman as the all-important line and the dramatic impact of a phrase or scene.

"Don Quixote" (to music by Ludwig Minkus) is subtitled "Fantasies of a Madman," and much of the corps' assignment was to depict members of an insane asylum, besides the requisite townspeople. The setting was bleak, and the corps moved in a crude mockery of the mentally ill. Eifman can use a simple prop in a highly effective way, as a pearly balloon representing optimism and life beyond the asylum, banishing hope as it pops. In both ballets, he employed poles inventively, parading a dancer like an ant on a twig.

Eifman Ballet offers an alternative to technique-obsessed New York ballet companies. Painting an expressionistic picture with rough, broad strokes and archetypal physiques, Eifman's dances satisfy different hungers. That said, and coming from the techno-phile NYC world, I wish the slim offerings of pure ballet were executed better. If Eifman insists on using the classical vocabulary, it should be paid more respect. Along the same line, the music suffers from being patched together and badly canned. But his dramatic sensibility and desire to please a crowd place him prominently on the annual New York dance calendar, year after year.

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