Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg
Choreography by Boris Eifman
Music by various composers
Cal Performances, Berkeley
May 10-12, 2013
Nobody ever could accuse Russian choreographer Boris Eifman of subtlety. Nobody seeing his latest full-length saga, “Rodin,” could accuse him of feminism either. The tale of the famed French sculptor Auguste Rodin’s tempestuous 15-year relationship with his student/lover/muse Camille Claudel and her subsequent decline into alcoholism and madness is told strictly from the man’s point of view. Of course, the ballet is called “Rodin,” not “Camille Claudel,” as was a moving 1988 film on the same subject starring Isabelle Adjani and Gerard Depardieu as the lovers. That movie focused on Claudel and her suffering. Eifman depicts Rodin as the tortured genius torn between two women, his longtime companion Rose Beuret, with whom he lives in companionable but passionless domesticity, and the volatile and sensuous Claudel. I guess it depends on how you look at it, but it seems, historically, that Claudel got the short end of the stick.
She also was an artist — some say a great one — taught by a master, but, after ultimately being spurned by both Rodin and the critics, shattered like a fragile statue that has been cast to the ground. It is no accident that Eifman begins his ballet in the asylum where she has been committed. And the opening scene, with women in white circling around and around, is arresting. As are many that follow.
Whatever the point of view, there is no denying that Eifman is a superb storyteller, distilling his plot points into dance that even the novice ballet-goer can easily follow (and a libretto is included in the program in case you can’t). His choreography is very interesting. Lots of odd angles, toes pointed inward, intertwined bodies and rolling about on the floor. And I must say, I have never been so aware of the use of elbows in space. It also can be very silly, as in a really ugly dance of the asylum inmates with pillows or an interpolated bacchanal at a wine festival with women stomping grapes for all the world like Lucy and Ethel on “I Love Lucy.”
But Claudel’s sad descent into madness is beautifully depicted, as is the love between the two artists in their several impassioned pas de deux. The dancers are equal to the dance. At the opening performance, Oleg Gabyshev was the tormented Rodin and Lyubov Andreyeva was Claudel, alternately supple and yielding or angry and frenzied. Nina Zmievets was the remote but threatening Rose.
A couple of scenes, the aforementioned wine festival at which Rodin meets a younger, more passionate Rose, and a nightclub scene in which a cancan is danced for no apparent reason other than Eifman wanting to choreograph a cancan. More effective is a dance by the apprentices in Rodin’s workroom (striking sets by Zinovy Margolin) that may be more Broadway than ballet, but was entertaining and effective comic relief.
For all its emotion and invention, there is one serious issue one might take with this ballet, which is set to snippets of music from Ravel, Saint-Saëns, Massenet, Debussy and Satie (all appropriately French). Some choreographers, like Mark Morris, maintain that the music dictates the dance. Here, the music is all over the place and not always in the same location as the steps. Eifman switches scenes (and scores) seemingly at will and sometimes it works, but often it doesn’t. At an intermission press conference I asked the choreographer whether the dance chooses the music or the music chooses the dance. His response was: “I choose the music.” Now, that may have been a problem of the language barrier, but it also is characteristic of Boris Eifman, a showman who walks his own particular path and, if people like it, fine, if not, also fine. Judging from the audience response opening night, mostly they like it.