It seemed like a bad idea: making a ballet out of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The complicated and complex story does not lend itself to the straightforward kind of narrative that succeeds best in ballet. And yet Boris Eifman has pulled it of with his company, the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg. If you like Russian intensity, The Karamazovs is worth seeing.
Eifman has reduced the sprawling novel to its bare essentials. He uses six principal characters: the three brothers (Alexei, Dimitri, and Ivan), their father, a local whore, Grushenka, who is pursued by the father and Dimitri, and Katerina Ivanovna, who is interested in both Dimitri and Ivan. The first act tells the bulk of the story; the second act is a metaphysical statement. Eifman has kept this ballet brief–the first act is 40 minutes long and the second act only 45.
In the first act Eifman delineates the personalities of his main characters. The drunken, dissolute father is reflected somewhat in his son Dimitri, who likes to have a good time. Ivan is educated and an intellectual; Alexei is pursuing monkhood and is the most idealistic and gentle of the brothers. The women are equally distinctive characters. Grushenka is clearly ready for any man, while Katerina’s interest in the two brothers makes her seem troubled all the time. The father and Dimitri are both interested in Grushenka which leads to conflict and the death of the father, bringing the first act to a violent close.
As often as he deals in obvious gesture, Eifman also likes to employ metaphor. After each of the four men has been introduced, Eifman gradually brings the three brothers together and then adds the father. The father wears a garment that looks like strips of cloth forming a kind of jacket. As the father leaves, each of the brothers becomes entangled in the strips of the garment, which comes apart into three pieces. Family is the tie that binds, and the father has his sons in his web.
Eiifman employs large scale movement and gesture. The corps of men and women, who serve a variety of functions (denizens of lowlife, serfs, townspeople), tend to dance in unison. The choreography demands athleticism and energy from the dancers, and the company does not disappoint. Just as Russian stage acting, Stanislavsky notwithstanding, tends towards a bold, more old fashioned style, so does Eifman present his narrative. Grushenka’s long legs are literally used to entwine the men she seeks. The fight between the father and Dimitri makes spectacular use of a table as springboard, shield, platform, and wall. When the father is found dead, Dimitri is captured and ensnared in ropes, then strung aloft for a dramatic tableau to end the first act.
The second act plumbs the nature of each of the three brothers, with the greatest attention being given to Ivan and Alexei. Words spoken over Wagner’s overture to Tannhauser express Ivan’s nihilistic philosophy. Alexei is depicted freeing prisoners in a misguided rush of compassion. At the end, each of the brothers has turned out badly and the ballet ends on a somber note, a strong contrast to the high drama closing the first half.
Eifman either typecasts his dancers or plays to their specific gifts. Alexei was danced by Igor Markov, who last appeared here as the Russian Hamlet. His open, almost naive face is well-suited for Alexei which he danced with the same dazed intensity he employed as Hamlet. Katerina was danced by Elena Kuzmina, who was given some deep squats in second position, just as she had been when dancing the role of Catherine in Russian Hamlet. Ivan was elegantly danced by Albert Galichanin. Both Oleg Markov (as the father) and Yuri Ananyan (as Dimitri) gave lusty performances. And Vera Arbuzova employed her long legs to good effect as Grushenka. This is a company of fine dancers who have been trained to express personality with passion.
A pastiche of Rachmaninoff, Mussorgsky, Wagner, and some gypsy melodies served as the music. The selections, heard on tape, were well chosen although there was little overall cohesiveness. The music might well have accompanied a movie, where the music is secondary and used only to support a particular moment, not to be part of a total composition. The set design of Slava Okunev made good use of a single structure at the back of the stage that could be modified to suggest houses, a prison, or some strange other-worldly place.