London sees a rare visit from Boris Eifman, the bad boy of Russian ballet. Jeffery Taylor sorts out the straitjackets from the tutus.
Amid great speculation in the Russian dance world, the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre was launched in 1977 by the Soviet Arts Ministry. As the only director/choreographer of the company, Boris Eifman – a devotee of modern dance – was merely a jeté away from the Devil in those reactionary Communist days; with no base for the company, no stage or even rehearsal rooms, the only thing guaranteed was a stifling Soviet artistic censorship imposed by the ruling party chairman, Leonid Brezhnev.
Employing just a handful of unknown dancers, Eifman used his talent as a showman to make his premiere a hit when he persuaded the people’s favourite of the Kirov Ballet, Alla Osipenko, to star in his debut work Two Voices. ‘What!?’, cried the cognoscenti in reaction, ‘Osipenko, the darling of the Tchaikovsky ballets Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, doing this modern stuff?’ But they flocked to see the event in droves, and with the work a major success in St Petersburg (the cradle of classical ballet), Eifman never looked back. The company name was soon reduced to simply ‘Eifman Ballet St Petersburg’.
Given his ability to tap into the eternal rebellion of the Russian soul and reject classical ballet clichés, Eifman caused a sensation when he used music by Pink Floyd and Rick Wakeman for his first big hit Boomerang – one which had St Petersburg undergraduates queuing round the block. His storylines have more to do with straitjackets than fairytale tutus, as he vigorously explores insanity (Metamorphoses and Don Quixote or The Fantasies of a Madman) as well as out-of-control ambition (Red Giselle and My Jerusalem). With the emphasis on the emotional impact that dance has on his audience, Eifman’s performers are all dancer-actors – a Western development that he anticipated by nearly a quarter of a century. In short, Boris Eifman is as radical an influence on his native dance psyche as Konstantin Stanislavsky was on the Russian and indeed worldwide approach to acting.
‘I am fascinated by the power of art, especially dance,’ Eifman said in a recent interview, ‘and I see the theatre as an emotional laboratory where the human being always comes first.’ An instant hit in America, where his company regularly performs, the legendary choreographer has created nearly a hundred works – many filmed for television both in Russia and abroad. This spring will see two of his most powerful creations premiere in London: Onegin and Anna Karenina.
Former dancer Jeffery Taylor is arts feature writer and Dance Critic of The Sunday Express.
The Eifman Ballet St Petersburg performs at London’s Coliseum 3–7 April 2012. To book tickets, visit www.eno.org or call the box office on 0871 911 0200.