Boris Eifman puts the bravura into ballet
Boris Eifman may polarise the critics but there’s no doubting his grip on the ballet public, writes Sharon Verghis
ON a freezing Monday night in St Petersburg the venerable Alexandrinsky Theatre, a stone’s throw from the city’s glittering Nevsky Prospect thoroughfare, is ablaze with light and crammed with a jostling opening-night crowd. It’s minus 35C outside but the building’s interior feels practically tropical courtesy of the jacked-up central heating and the press of so many bodies.
There’s an impressive turnout for tonight’s performance of Anna Karenina by the Eifman Ballet; so popular is this company, and so infrequently does it appear in its home town that tickets for its shows are invariably at a premium. Tonight is no different. Scalpers, their faces shrouded by heavy furs, loiter at the entrance of the circa-1756 national theatre, the oldest in Russia. Roubles pass hands in the snowy dark, culture and capitalism intersecting in a peculiarly Russian way.
It’s just one measure of the adulation the troupe and its director, Boris Eifman, attract in this country. You can sense it in the mood of the room, in the presence of numerous, redcheeked young dance groupies, many barely out of their teens, and in the animated preshow chatter. (Will the maestro be making any revisions to this 2005 ballet; will company principal Maria ‘‘ Masha’’ Abashova be any good after eight months on maternity leave?)
This is Russia, where ballet is king, and this is St Petersburg, home to some of its most devoted acolytes; little wonder there is such an air of anticipation tonight. Silence falls as the curtains rise. Tolstoy’s epic 1877 tragedy, distilled essentially in this ballet into one long, technically brilliant and steamily erotic pas de trois, is watched with intense concentration.
When it ends, there is deafening applause. Backstage, the stately, long-limbed Abashova accepts a sheaf of roses and the voluble praise his world. Hailed as the king of modern Russian ballet, Eifman, 65, has known international fame for at least two decades, had his works performed by the Bolshoi and New York City Ballet, and been inducted into France’s Order of Arts and Letters. Later this year, the $US200 million ($201m) Boris Eifman Dance Academy, one of the most ambitious cultural infrastructure developments in Russia in recent years, is slated to open in St Petersburg.
His fan base, anchored by a loyal and passionate Russian diaspora, stretches from Paris to Shanghai and, in Russia, at least, tickets for his shows sell out faster than streetcorner blinis on a freezing winter’s day. This year marks the company’s 35th anniversary, and it will be celebrating it at venues ranging from Covent Garden and the Berlin Staatsoper to Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre and the New York City Centre; in August, it will make its inaugural tour to Australia, courtesy of a generous Sydney-based benefactor.
Eifman’s road to the top has been so hard fought, however, that he has never quite lost his appreciation for praise and the loyal audiences who’ve sustained him. This is the man whose works repeatedly fell foul of cultural censors during the Soviet era (in 1979, The New York Times hailed him as ‘‘ the man who dared’’), whose shows were threatened with cancellations, whose ballets were branded pornographic and ideologically unsound, and who was prevented by cultural apparatchiks from travelling abroad for more than a decade.
He has called this part of his past his ‘‘ war with fools’’, and it certainly has been a battle, not just politically but financially. His company, also known as the State Academic Ballet Theatre of St Petersburg, was left to sink or swim in the early years, surviving on box-office sales and, unusually in a state-run arts culture, getting no government funding. (‘‘They hoped we would die,’’ he says bluntly.) He and his troupe have bobbed along the precarious political currents of his country since 1977, surviving some of its biggest upheavals, from the fall of communism to the reformist dawns of glasnost and perestroika to the rise of hypercapitalism across modern Russia. Now, there are safe harbours everywhere for this former dissident and rebel: it’s something he regards with a certain amused irony.
I meet Eifman for a chat the morning after the performance at the company’s headquarters on an unprepossessing backstreet in the city. He greets me with a hearty handshake in his cosy rooftop studio. He’s a charming teddy bear of a man, solidly built, with a halo of frizzy grey curls. Impressively, he shows no sign of the late-night drinking session I’m told he hosted for a group of foreign journalists the
A scene from Eifman Ballet’s
Anna Karenina, above; Boris Eifman, below