Boris Eifman: the modern maverick of ballet

Eifman Ballet
A scene from ballet, Anna Karenina Eifman Ballet Supplied, free to use
Boris Eifman
Boris Eifman Artistic Director, Eifman Ballet Supplied, free to use
Eifman Ballet
A scene from ballet, Tchaikovsky Eifman Ballet Supplied, free to use
Eifman Ballet
A scene from ballet, Tchaikovsky Eifman Ballet Supplied, free to use
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, red-cheeked young dance groupies, many barely out of their teens, and in the animated pre-show 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 of the maestro himself, Boris Eifman. He is beaming, pleased with himself, his dancers and 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 street-corner 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 night before. He takes a seat facing a window looking out on to the spires, cathedrals and palaces of the city, Peter the Great's cultured, self-regarding ``Venice of the north'' on the Neva delta. It has been his great love affair since he arrived here as a young man, he tells me through an interpreter. He has drawn creative inspiration for decades while walking its graceful streets and boulevards, negotiating its canals and bridges, wandering through the storied Alexander Nevsky Lavra to pay homage to the graves of his heroes: Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky and many others.

This city was the anchor that held him to Russia during the worst years of persecution. "It is from another world, it is not Russia. There's a special energy here from all those great people from the past who've lived and created here."

He leaps up suddenly and takes me on a tour of various objects that decorate the perimeter of the studio. They are cherished talismans, each with a symbolic connection to important ballets he has made since 1977. There are prints and photos of Petipa and Balanchine, a grainy image of tragic Russian prima ballerina Olga Spessivtseva, works by Tolstoy and Moliere, a bust of Tchaikovsky, a Hanukkah candle, scholarly tomes on Rodin and Glinka, biographies of Russian tsars, a battered copy of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. The last inspired his 2009 ballet, Onegin, which I see at the Alexandrinsky on the evening of the day we meet.

Staged to music by Tchaikovsky as well as Russian rock star A. Sitkovetsky, it is, in the Eifman tradition, a dramatic, passionately theatrical work. I'm struck, as he chatters happily to me about his ideas and idols, often in gnomic fashion, how much he is his art, and vice versa. There are no filters and cynicism is largely absent. His is a world of big, raw emotions and big ideas, painted more often than not in bright primary colours.

Born in Rubtsovsk in Siberia's Altai Krai region on July 22, 1946, Eifman retains scant memories of his early years, saying his only vivid recollection is of "the terrible cold". His father worked in a military factory, and neither he nor Eifman's mother understood "how I, this young boy from a Jewish family, would want to make ballet, not become a doctor or something".

He adored dancing - "it was the natural way to let my emotions out" - and started choreographing small works at 13. By 16, he had a small ballet troupe of his own in Kishinev, Moldova, where he moved to train as a dancer in 1962. He honed his dance credentials further at St Petersburg's Vaganova Ballet Academy and continued his choreographic studies at the Leningrad Conservatory.

The young Siberian made a name for himself early on in St Petersburg's classical ballet circles, staging, among other things, a production of The Firebird at the Vaganova's mighty parent company, the Kirov Ballet (now the Mariinsky) in 1975. But there was a heretic underneath those classical trappings. Not for him pretty for pretty's sake, the kind of staid, formal aesthetics then typified by the Bolshoi. Instead, inspired by figures such as experimental choreographer Leonid Jakobson, and 18th-century ballet theorist Jean-Georges Noverre, he sought to create "big dramaturgic ballets which plunged into the world of psychology".

"I was interested in discovering the new possibilities of the ballet theatre, where the art expresses very serious new ideas, shows not only the movement of beautiful bodies but presents what is inside those bodies and those internal worlds," Eifman says.

He stresses that he had no interest in "demolition" - he is a great respecter of Russian classical technique - but, still, he ruffled plenty of feathers within St Petersburg's venerable ballet establishment. (This city, long considered Russia's cultural capital, is home, among other things, to the Mariinsky Opera and Ballet Theatre, founded here in 1740, and the Mikhailovsky Opera and Ballet Theatre, established in 1833.)

Despite the intense disapproval, he was driven, he says, by his mission to create an original repertoire that would become, as he puts it, "the new ballet of Russia, which has a genetic connection with classical Russian ballet". He taps the table for emphasis. "You understand that is is not modern Western ballet I wanted to make - it is modern Russian ballet. I wasn't copying the works of Western choreographers, I didn't know them at all. I was developing the culture and choreography of the world I lived in."

In 1976, he scored his big break when Lenkonsert, a state-run concert organisation, gave him permission to to form his own troupe, and a year later his Leningrad New Ballet ensemble was formed. The Soviet authorities were initially unsuspecting they had a ballet revolutionary in their midst but his first work, in 1977, "destroyed their illusions". The ballet in question, Two Voices, featured music by Pink Floyd and so enraged authorities they threatened to cancel the show.

Undeterred, he continued churning out his "psychological ballets" with their often provocative story-lines and erotically charged choreography; gradually, a distinctive style melding contemporary and classical techniques emerged.

In the first decade of its life the company presented almost 30 productions, ranging from experimental works to full-length ballets. Story-lines were inspired by everything from Russian fairytales to Shakespeare to the Old Testament, and set out to shock Soviet audiences out of their complacency. (Reviewing a 1979 Moscow staging of Boomerang, a sensual piece set to rock music, a New York Times correspondent noted that "when the houselights go up, half the audience breaks into delighted applause, the other half sits on its hands, shocked and embarrassed. But every seat in the spacious theatre is taken.")

Recurring themes included the struggles faced by creative geniuses, rebels crushed by the rules of society, and madness - all taboo or sensitive subjects in the Soviet era, but which immediately resonated with a young Russian generation. The company started drawing huge crowds across the Soviet Union (a performance in Moscow filled the 4000-capacity theatre at the Rossiya Hotel), and this popularity would prove to be highly beneficial on two fronts. Although officially operating under the auspices of the state, it did not receive any government funding, relying instead on ticket sales. These eager audiences kept it afloat financially, though things remained tough. (The company had no rehearsal space until 1989, with the dancers having to rehearse in gymnasiums across the city.)

Eifman very quickly had to learn the ropes of private enterprise, becoming a risk-taker and entrepreneur. Looking back, he says adversity made the troupe tough and resourceful. He's proud the company, now state-funded, was among the first in Russia to develop a theatrical model based on private and state partnership.

This popularity, vitally, also acted as a protective shield against government retribution. "It was why they couldn't just stop everything because it would turn out to be a great scandal."

But there were many other ways of making life difficult. "I was prohibited from going abroad, I had no rehearsal space - it was a very hard time."

A 2002 New York Times article revealed how an admiring mention of the company in 1979 by the newspaper's Moscow bureau chief at the time, Anthony Austin, caused a big headache for Eifman, who was summoned by cultural officials with links to the KGB for a "please explain" hearing. They wanted to know what his relations were with the Americans, and also angrily proposed that he emigrate. "If you don't want to be a Soviet choreographer, then go to your Israel and do it there," he was told.

Though the company continued to build a huge following with young Soviets, Eifman recalls it as dark and wearying period, devoid of "a single day with an opportunity to be a free artist amid an unfree system". Among many restrictions, his works had to be approved by the state censorship commission for three successive years before they were allowed to be performed.

Then, in 1987, came a big turning point when he submitted his most politically sensitive ballet, The Master and Margarita, based on the Bulgakov tale, to the commission. Set in a madhouse, it featured gagged dancers. He sees the ballet as "the Rubicon of my career. I started it in 1986, when the Soviet Union was starting to collapse, and I thought it would be my last production, that I would be sent out of the Soviet Union because I showed how political dissidents were imprisoned in asylums."

To his shock, the commission passed it on the first go. At this point, he suddenly realised the old Soviet system was all but gone and that a new era truly was dawning. "These same people who were destroying me one year ago were now saying this is the new art of the new era." He laughs, shaking his head. "From dissident, I transformed into the hero in just one moment."

The company was finally allowed to go abroad to perform in 1988, making its international debut at the Champs-Elysees Theatre in Paris. It made a splash and the international dance world started to take notice. In 1998, it made its American debut at the New York City Centre with Red Giselle, Eifman's ballet about Olga Spessivtseva's descent into madness, and was given a rapturous reception by key reviewers.

Leading the charge was The New York Times's influential dance critic Anna Kisselgoff, who wrote that "a ballet world in search of a major choreographer need search no more. He is Boris Eifman."

Back home there were other triumphs, with the rebel son belatedly being embraced by a once hostile cultural establishment. In 1995, he was awarded the title of People's Artist of Russia; in 2000, the Bolshoi Ballet commissioned and danced one of his works, Russian Hamlet. Looking back, he cites several key creative highpoints. They include 1991's Requiem, his first work without a traditional plot, 1994's intensely personal Don Quixote, and an early ballet, The Idiot, based on the Dostoevsky novel.

Other important works include 1993's Tchaikovsky, an exploration of his composing hero's dark struggle with his sexuality ("his music is a confession, full of pain and anger"); as well as 1999's Russian Hamlet, based on the tragic fate of Tsar Paul I, murdered son of Catherine the Great, and of course, 2005's Anna Karenina (he's bringing this work, as well as Tchaikovsky, to Australia).

He says he's inspired by three key elements: the bodies of his dancers, classical music, and words. Literature, in particular, has proved a constant source of inspiration, particularly the Russian greats. (He has created ballets based on The Seagull and The Brothers Karamazov, among others.) "Among writers, Dostoevsky is the most close to me. His philosophy of life in Russia is an amazing way of plunging into and understanding the Russian soul and character ... this internal struggle between God and the devil, between good and bad forces."

Onegin was his attempt to "transport Pushkin's characters to our times, placing them in new circumstances, more dramatic, more extreme, when the old world is collapsing and life dictates new rules. I needed that experiment in order to answer the question that troubles me: what is the Russian soul today? Has it preserved its uniqueness, its mystery, its attraction?"

Eifman is definitely not everyone's cup of tea. His trademark style, with its high drama, colour and expressionist overtones, is anything but subtle. In a modernist, minimalist dance scene, he's something of an anachronism. Despite those early rave reviews from the likes of Clive Barnes and Kisselgoff, much of the American press seems to have become progressively unkinder with each passing year.

Witness the excoriating review by The New York Times' Alistair Macaulay of Eifman Ballet's latest work, Rodin, in New York in March. "Bad choreography crops up all too often, and yet nobody else today, now that Maurice Bejart and Roland Petit are no longer with us, makes the kind of awful ballet that is Boris Eifman's forte." Ouch.

Rodin may have fallen foul of some New York reviewers, but English critics were a little less savage when the company performed Anna Karenina in London in April. Debra Craine, dance critic for The Times, said there was no doubting Eifman's flair for theatrical invention. The work "mines Tolstoy's knotty plot for every ounce of emotion it can drain out of the Anna-Karenin-Vronsky love triangle. This is ideal Eifman territory, and he evokes the tale's overwrought passions with a steady stream of strenuous choreography."

The dance critic for The Telegraph, Laura Thompson, also paid credit to Eifman's strong sense of theatre and inspired use of the corps de ballet, awarding the show three stars.

Others have celebrated Eifman's passionate theatricality. Critic Alan Helms, writing in 2009, said: "I suspect that in time, people will come to see Eifman as someone suffering the fate of Jerry Robbins in his own lifetime - dismissed as a lightweight compared to Balanchine and altogether too Broadway. I certainly hope Eifman enjoys a different fate."

Asked about this love-hate relationship with the American press, he leans forward, eyes flashing. "Some critics in the US are very close to Balanchine, they were raised with his type of work, and I am very far from the tradition, although I made Musagete in his memory." This 2004 ballet premiered at, and was danced by, New York City Ballet as part of its Balanchine centennial celebrations.

"That's why not everyone likes us, because they think this is what ballet art should be." Are they too cynical, I ask? He nods his head vigorously. "Da! But it's not just being cynical. The thing is, is that they have no analytical skills. They only have one thing in their head, and that is, 'I like Balanchine, and if it's not Balanchine, it's not good.' " He grimaces and shrugs. "My company is not for critics or ballet professionals. It is for common people."

He's certainly popular with audiences, with standing ovations commonplace after company performances.

Eifman's love of narrative dance means he seeks dancers with particularly strong theatrical as well as technical skills; he also wants them tall - very tall. His troupe - acrobatic and dynamically precise to the last member - is one of the tallest in the world because he is inspired, he says, by elongated lines (the minimum he seeks is 172cm for women and 185cm for men).

He laughs, and says he'd love to do an "Avatar-style ballet", referring to the tall, blue-skinned creatures in James Cameron's blockbuster movie. It has been a difficult process to find dancers who tick all the boxes, which is why he has long harboured a dream of setting up a dance academy modelled on his requirements. Finally, it's being realised. Later this year, the 12,000sq m Boris Eifman Dance Academy, featuring 14 dance studios, dormitories, a medical centre, two ballet stages and a vast atrium, is scheduled to open in St Petersburg. Housing 228 students and 80 staff, it has been set up to combat what cultural authorities see as a growing problem: a worrying lack of versatility and innovation within Russia's classical ballet companies.

This academy, they hope, will be the hothouse for an innovative system of dance education in Russia that will incorporate classical and modern training and, hopefully, produce a new generation of Russian dancers and choreographers, who have, they believe, become rarities in modern ballet theatres.

There is also an ambitious social mission involved. Authorities are recruiting children aged seven from disadvantaged backgrounds across Russia, with a special focus on orphans, and they will be housed, fed, trained and educated at the academy until the age of 17. After that they will perhaps enter the ranks of Eifman's company or go to other dance companies across the country and internationally. Eifman sees this as a vital new way of dealing with the country's massive child welfare issues.

On wider issues, he believes it's not just Russian ballet that is in crisis but ballet as an art form itself, and says it's more crucial than ever for works to appeal to young audiences, and for dancers to be technically versatile.

Harder to solve is the perennial problem of inadequate funding. He rolls his eyes when I ask him what role Russia's many billionaire oligarchs play in the arts. Businessman Vladimir Kekhman, the colourful so-called "banana king", donated $US40m for the renovation of St Petersburg's increasingly prominent Mikhailovsky Theatre, took on the role of general director of the company, and promptly lured away from the Bolshoi young superstars Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev.

"Kekhman invests in the arts, but he also invests in his own public relations instruments as well. There are no tax laws in Russia as in the US that will encourage our oligarchs to fund and support cultural institutions. It is a great loss," Eifman says.

Thank goodness, then, for the likes of Ulla Savisalo, an energetic 63-year-old Finnish ballet patron who lives in Sydney and who is privately funding the company's inaugural trip to Australia. An accountant by training, Savisalo and her husband operate the Australian arm of their successful international technology and construction company, Savcor, out of North Sydney, but she travels regularly back to her home town of Mikkeli in Finland, where she has run a successful dance festival since 1995. (It has attracted the likes of veteran American Ballet Theatre star Julie Kent and Vladimir Malakhov, Berlin State Ballet's artistic director.)

A lifelong balletomane, she has been a passionate fan of the Eifman Ballet since seeing her first performance in Berlin in 2007, and is thrilled to be introducing Australian audiences to her hero. "Will it suit their tastes? We will need to wait and see. Eifman is nervous, but I'm not because I know they are good."

Eifman says he and his 50-strong company are excited about coming.

"We have been everywhere around the world but Australia is the last frontier. The career of an artist is very up or down, nobody can predict the future, but yes, this is a great year for us. We are honoured to have the opportunity."

Eifman Ballet performs in Sydney from August 15, Melbourne from August 29.

Sharon Verghis travelled to St Petersburg as a guest of the Sydney sponsor of the Eifman Ballet's Australian tour.

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