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Russian Hamlet: The Son of Catherine the Great
Making its second
appearance in San Francisco, the Eifman Ballet, which first appeared in the U.S. in 1998,
has brought its production Russian Hamlet by the companyÕs founder Boris Eifman,
who is responsible for everything in this production except the set and costume designs.
The music is a pastiche of Beethoven and Mahler, presumably put together by Eifman.
He has taken the the basic outline of ShakespeareÕs Hamlet and grafted it
onto a slice of Russian history. The result is an energetic theater piece that is
neither true to Hamlet nor entirely true to Russian history.
During the Soviet period, Russian ballet was notorious for its
insularity. What was shown to the public was the considerable number of ballet
classics that had been created in Russia, mostly around the turn of the nineteenth century
by foreign artists such as Petipa, often reworked to suit Soviet ideology, and new works
that adhered to very strict political objectives. Russian dance training was
world-famous, and their dancers were the envy of the ballet world. But their
choreographers suffered from the lack of exposure to new ideas, producing ballets that to
western eyes were hopelessly old fashioned. It was the skill, vigor, and athleticism
of their dancers that made these dances seem more than they were.
Boris Eifman is an unusual figure in the history of Russian ballet. As
the Soviet empire was falling apart, he was able to create a company outside the imposing
state subsidy system and make it a success. He tackled difficult subjects, fraught
with psychological meaning, and made evening-length ballets that looked to the Russian
past but were modern. Russian Hamlet, first presented in 1999, is in that
mold. He has taken Catherine II the Great and her son Paul and elaborated a story
that equates her with Gertrude and Paul with Hamlet. In the ballet she is equally
the center of attention, so the title is something of a misnomer.
The ballet is structured in three parts, beginning with a prologue, in
which the young Paul witnesses the murder of his father, Peter III, brought about by
Catherine with the complicity of her lover (called the Favorite in the ballet, probably
referring to the historical figure Grigory Orlov, who became CatherineÕs lover in 1760
before she ascended to the throne in 1762). It then moves into Act I without a break.
The first act depicts an intrigue-filled Russian court, with Catherine maintaining
absolute control over Paul and a watchful eye over her wayward lover. Paul marries
an ambitious young woman, who is killed--probably on CatherineÕs orders. Act II
focuses on Paul, who is distraught over the death of his bride. The ghost of his
father, Peter III, appears, urging revenge. At a court costume ball that becomes an
orgy, the Favorite tries to regain favor with Catherine, but fails. Paul realizes
his life is futile, as his mother Catherine remains in control. The ballet ends with
a helpless and defeated Paul.
The dancers brought great commitment to their roles. Yelena
Kuzmina, in the role of Catherine, was intense and brooding. Her son, danced by Igor
Markov, agonized a great deal. The Favorite, Albert Galichanin, was suitably rakish.
The large corps of dancers were a uniform group, both in appearance and in the
precision of their dancing. The choreography was not particularly challenging nor
varied. The leading dancers had to emote a great deal, but technically what they had
to do was not unusual. The male corps were asked to do mostly dances in unison,
involving many jumps and kicks. For a company that has the reputation of having
brought new life to Russian ballet, the choreography was remarkably like works from the
Soviet period such as Spartacus--a lot of athletic display masking a paucity of
movement ideas, although Eifman did employ some unusual, jutting maneuvers. Much was
made of Catherine's throne, from which she extended herself at odd angles.
The physical production is handsome, with a unit set that looks up into
a rotunda from an angle and provides a balcony level as well as entryways through arches
that gave variety to the ways the dancers could appear. Eifman makes use of a long
cape (or train) on several occasions in the ballet, letting the cape become an important
physical element in the choreography. While this brought to mind La Bayadere
(the Kingdom of the Shades scene in which the two principals dance with a long scarf), it
was equally reminiscent of the way Martha Graham worked with fabric and, to some extent,
Alwin Nikolais. A long blue cloth became a screen through which we watched young
Paul and his bride, lit from the back so that their shadows fell on the cloth, make love.
The ballet was fraught with action, but the characters, despite their
intense emotions, remained one-dimensional. The work would have been much stronger,
and more effective, if it had been distilled into one act, dispensing with unnecessary
action and reducing the story and relationships to their essence. Eifman would do
well to study LimonÕs The MoorÕs Pavane, a masterful condensation of the Othello
story. The audience, a full theater in which the local Russian emigre community
was in the majority, applauded and cheered the performance. As a first experience
with this company, it was interesting, and certainly not dull, but it was not great
San Francisco, March 29, 2001
- Larry Campbell