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 company�s 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 Shakespeare�s 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 Catherine�s 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 Catherine�s 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 Limon�s The Moor�s 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 ballet.
San Francisco, March 29, 2001 – Larry Campbell