Don't Shoot That Russian Seagull!

Chekhov enters the ballet world, kicking high

For some time, Boris Eifman has foraged for choreographic fodder in Russian literature and history. His Karamazovs, Red Giselle, Anna Karenina, and Russian Hamlet (the latter two on view this week) have been huge, popular successes. Now he's devoured Chekhov. But the playwright's 1896 The Seagull isn't just about passion and jealousy (Eifman specialties); it's about stagnating artistic talent, foiled ambition, aging, and the dubious price of success—all festering and erupting at a country estate. In transforming Chekhov's four principal characters into a successful choreographer (Trigorin), a young innovator (Treplev), a reigning ballerina (Arkadina), and an ambitious young dancer (Zarechnaya—the play's Nina), Eifman has gained a justification for dancing but overridden subtleties.

He's also stepped up the pace, even though the ballet runs for two hours with an intermission and eventually seems to drag. In a ballet studio that looks like an airplane hangar with a high, curving metal-and-glass wall (set by Zinovy Margolin), small scenes follow one another propulsively, while the score toggles between pieces by Rachmaninov or Scriabin and ominous sounds. Many a dramatic encounter or bout of self-questioning ends with a character rushing offstage for no apparent reason, or an angled, gold curtain dropping into the action, or a drastic change in Eifman and Gleb Filshtinsky's lighting.

Treplev (the excellent Dmitri Fisher in the cast I saw) begins in an open-sided box, contorting to find a position he can live with before finally breaking out. The box stands for tradition; that he returns to it at the end is tantamount to artistic suicide. Confinement has evidently influenced his choreography. He slithers, flexes his feet, and twists his limbs around, while company members stare aghast. He works up a ballet about a heaving white fabric blob (creatures press their faces against it from within) that swallows and disgorges dancers. Luckily we see only a few appalling seconds of it. He watches hip-hop dancers from a park bench (the Russian performers are endearingly game) and brings those moves into the studio.

A Treplev-in-the-box: Eifman Ballet's Dimitry Fisher
Valentin Baranovsky
A Treplev-in-the-box: Eifman Ballet's Dimitry Fisher

Eifman, in interviews, has acknowledged the autobiographical aspect of the male characters' artistic voyages. Trigorin (Yuri Smekalov) isn't exactly a classicist. Jaw jutting, spine rigid, he demonstrates soaring cabrioles and leaps to his dancers, but also distortions of traditional ballet steps, performed with brittle accuracy to the ticking of a metronome (one of The Seagull's problems is that Treplev's and Trigorin's choreographic styles aren't all that different, and neither is thrilling). Treplev's desire to be adventurous is commendable, but it's hard to care too much about him—a mixture of a droopy, pigeon-toed Petrouchka; a temperamental young athlete; and a thumb-sucking baby (the infantile poses are designed to remind us that Arkadina is his mother). But Trigorin you could get to like, thanks in part to Smekalov's powerful performing. Some of the most interesting choreography comes in his self-doubting solos; maybe, you think, he could actually get good.

The ballet's many pas de deux, combative trios, and quartets reveal tangled relationships through ingenious, spectacular tangling of bodies and limbs—Eifman's forte. At one point Zarechnaya (the beautifully unaffected Maria Abashova) executes an arched one-handed handstand on Treplev's thigh. The amorous Trigorin jackknifes her into his arms. And, whether acting as anxious mother, jealous lover, or reigning ballerina, Arkadina (the astonishing Nina Zmievets) wields her wire-thin limbs like daggers and snares. To show that she definitively bests Zarechnaya, Eifman assembles the corps de ballet into a two-person-high circular pyramid with Arkadina gloating at the top.

Remember Chekhov's symbolic seagull? Eifman did. It's the ousted Zarechnaya dancing white-feathered atop a table behind a glass target while gentleman club members shoot poofs of powder at her. Eifman fans scream for this ballet, but surely even they admit it's not his best.

 
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