Boris Eifman's turbulent ballets spark with conflict. His excitable characters fight their way through life, battling enemies as diverse as revolutionary terror (Red Giselle) and the domineering of a royal parent (Russian Hamlet). Their delicate spirits are bruised and suffer mortal blows as they pass through a variety of gauntlets, from immigration to psychiatric confinement, and from adultery to repressed sexuality.
Eifman's heroes are bigger than life, and yet they're also like so many ordinary people‹not just Tsars or prima ballerinas in exile‹who struggle to get by. This is why audiences respond so warmly to Eifman's dramas. The crowds are likely to understand the generational conflict, too, which lies at the heart of Eifman's newest evening-length work, The Seagull. This ballet based on Anton Chekhov's play of the same name received its Russian premiere in January, and will be the major novelty of Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg's spring engagement in New York, when the renowned company returns to New York City Center, April 13-29. Other highlights of this three-week season include the spectacular productions of Anna Karenina, Red Giselle, and Russian Hamlet already familiar to Eifman devotees.
In The Seagull, Eifman has moved the action of Chekhov's play to a ballet studio, where a young maverick of the dance world challenges an established choreographer, staking his claim to the future of art‹and to a girl.
"The problems that Chekhov talks about in his play, they're very close to problems I encountered in my career," Eifman says. "There is a conflict between different generations and between new and old forms. Chekhov's characters learn the price of success; and they struggle with love and loneliness."
Eifman says he has reduced Chekhov's cast, doing away with country doctors and retired civil servants, and whittling down the group to four antagonists who circle one another warily in the Minimalist setting of a ballet studio designed by Zinovy Margolin. Music is by Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, with the latter processed electronically.
Two characters dominate the action. Treplev is the young revolutionary seeking new forms of expression. Trigorin is his nemesis, an established and successful choreographer who enjoys the favors of the company's star ballerina, Arkadina. A double-dipping lady's man, Trigorin also becomes Treplev's romantic rival when he steals the affections of the ingénue Nina Zarechnaya.
Like the play, the ballet concerns itself with the interior lives of these characters, with their feelings, attitudes and relationships. Eifman believes that movement can portray this hidden drama more readily than words. Yet he adds, "The most important thing, in the end, is not the love triangle; it's the duel between two ideas." Similarly, the corps de ballet that often represents an important social force in Eifman's ballets is here relegated to the background, where it frames the action.
Speaking of the life-and-death struggle between Treplev, the misunderstood innovator, and Trigorin, the venerated master, Eifman says: "I have played each of those roles at different periods of my life; and I still do to this day. So, my ballet is based on a play but, on the other hand, it's about me and about people who devote their lives to creating art. I think every artist, no matter what form he works in, is always fighting against himself, and that's what makes the creative process so difficult." The choreographer expresses satisfaction, however, because in The Seagull he feels he has discovered fresh possibilities for creating material, which will inject new life into his work and lead him in hitherto unexplored directions.
Treplev is not so lucky. "The protagonist of my ballet doesn't shoot himself," Eifman says, explaining how he altered Chekhov's ending. "He doesn't kill himself physically, but he dies as a creative artist; and I don't think that's any less tragic. My most important goal was to recognize the spiritual tragedy that occurs in this play."
However much he may identify with Chekhov's characters, Eifman's own life hardly seems tragic. Unlike the those miserable souls in The Seagull whose loves and ambitions remain hopelessly unrealized, Eifman, now 60 years old, not only has achieved widespread notoriety but also has sustained his company for 30 years. Three generations of Eifman dancers, all dedicated to his vision, attended The Seagull's premiere in St. Petersburg. Eifman's next plans include establishing a Dance Palace there to shelter young choreographers.
The Eifman company's opening night Gala in New York, on April 13, will crown this achievement, marking the 30th anniversary with a one-time-only celebration featuring excerpts from some of Eifman's greatest hits, and the New York premiere of his notorious Double Voice, a duet from 1977 set to music by Pink Floyd. Defying the Soviet censorship of American rock music at that time, Double Voice launched the choreographer as a popular success, and became legendary for introducing young audiences to the ballet.
The Gala also will unveil the New York premiere of Cassandra, set to music by Gustav Holst, which the emerging Russian choreographer Nikita Dimitrievsky has created as a tribute to Eifman. Dimitrievsky, 28, is one of those young artists who, like Treplev, demand the opportunity to prove their talent and share their ideas.
Recalling his own youthful battles with the establishment, especially the controversy generated by Double Voice, Eifman says, "I lived within my art as a free man. Maybe I was naïve, but I was convinced that this was possible; and in the end it was."
Robert Johnson is the dance critic for The Star-Ledger, in Newark.