More than a century after Vernon and Irene Castle dazzled the public with their carefree elegance in the maxixe, ballroom dancing is back in vogue and contemporary choreographer Boris Eifman has pounced on the trend. His latest creation, The Pygmalion Effect, which comes to New York City Center, June 7 to 9, relates a tale of starry ambition and heartbreak set within the arena of competitive ballroom dancing. In recent years millions have embraced the foxtrot and the tango, according to Eifman. Ballroom dances give people “a one-of-a-kind source of emotional and physical energy.” Many of these dance fans pursue visions of glamour, escaping boredom in a whirl of sequins and heels. The Pygmalion Effect exaggerates this aspect of today’s dance craze, portraying ballroom dancing as a ladder for those aspiring to wealth and class.
Also inspiring the work is the ancient myth of the sculptor who falls in love with a statue of his own creation and Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw—a 20th century incarnation of the same tale. As an Eifman production, however, the story acquires more psychological depth as well as an ironic twist.
Eifman introduces us to Leon, a celebrated dancer, and to his protégée, Gala, a girl from the slums. Fate brings them together when Gala rescues Leon from an attack. Despite Gala’s lack of refinement in Leon’s eyes, he decides to make her a star. He succeeds with assistance from 21st century technology, and the timely intervention of a winged angel. Yet, Gala’s triumph remains incomplete.
That’s because Leon, far from being enamored of his creation, is a narcissist who only loves himself; while poor Gala is hopelessly infatuated with her mentor. Their incompatibility turns the ballet into a tear-stained comedy. Yet, Eifman concludes on a note of optimism. As Gala, who has been dumped, rests on a park bench, a heavenly muse comes to uplift and comfort her. Balletomanes will recognize the scene as an inversion of the gender roles in George Balanchine’s Meditation.
“Leon bothers with training (to be more precise, taming) Gala, because of his boundless vanity,” Eifman explains. “What ultimately transforms Gala is the so-called Pygmalion Effect, a psychological phenomenon in which a charismatic teacher impresses his beliefs on his student. The point is that a person, thinking of himself or herself as a talented and extraordinary human being, grows personally and accomplishes a great deal.”
Eifman’s heroes are often complicated, and Gala is no exception. “On the one hand, Gala is the subject of an experiment, because Leon needs to prove that his artistic and teaching skills are tremendous. On the other hand, she is endowed with dignity, willpower, and perseverance. What is more, Gala falls in love with Leon, and these feelings (as well as the dream of becoming a dancer) build up her drive to persevere and be successful,” Eifman says.
This new ballet is extravagant and, for all its comedy, multilayered. “Dance is capable of transforming a person and attracting opposites,” Eifman says. “It can build a bridge between different social classes. However, the reality outside the studio is cruel: it divides people. In this world, can we hope for happiness? Or is harmony only attainable in the world of art and dreams?”
Robert Johnson is a freelance dance writer based in New York City.