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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

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

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