Kill Mama


I can only imagine how radical Boris Eifman’s ballets must have appeared to Soviet audiences in 1977, when he established an independent company in Leningrad. Seen today, the histrionic acting style his dancers employ in his psychological narrative ballets seems kin to 19th-century tradition; it’s his movement that’s defiantly “modern”—in line with more recent choreographers like Maurice Béjart, or even Maguy Marin.

We’ve seen this kind of dancing before. It knowingly distorts classical line to reveal private neuroses or societal ills, or simply to give the effect of power. Yet Eifman is undeniably original, if inconsistent. In his Russian Hamlet, men of the court, 18th-century wigs and knee breeches notwithstanding, wrench their legs akimbo in big cloddish hops. Women in velvet gowns jump like comedic peasants or squat en pointe one minute and extend long, elegant limbs skyward the next. Inventive pas de deux involve the use of legs like scissors clamping onto a partner’s waist, leg, or shoulder, and spiraling into various daredevil positions.

Positions are what you notice the most. Click, click, another picture: The Empress, Catherine the Great, grabs her foot and raises her leg behind in attitude, and the head of her beleaguered heir pops into the circle she’s made, as if it were a noose or a window on his bleak future. Eifman has a showman-architect’s eye for props and for constructions formed with dancers. In this story of the mother from hell, cloaks as wide as the stage become snares and playgrounds. A brilliantly chilling example occurs near the end of the two-act ballet, when Catherine is visited by the ghost of her husband (whose murder she engineered); three unseen dancers manipulate a billow of black silk topped by a skull, giving it the semblance of long, shadowy arms. Earlier, the Empress’s lover is pushed to his death from a two-story tower built of corps de ballet men.

Eifman also tells his tale—Tsarist court intrigue grafted onto Hamlet—in pictures, some of them very brief. It takes fewer minutes for Catherine to mime to her son Paul, “Get a wife,” and for a desirable one to appear than it does for pretty nursemaids in white décolleté to tiptoe and “sshh!” their way around the young prince’s cradle.

In terms of the company’s acting style, emotion, too, comes in flashes. Paul and his young bride yearn into a kiss; she gives the audience a diva smile. Expressions drop onto the dancers’ faces and dissolve. In the second cast, I was most impressed by Yuri Ananyan as Catherine’s “Favorite” and corps member Alexandre Melkaev as the fallible hero. Ornately thin Vera Arbuzova plays the Empress as an impassioned spider.

This dramatic spectacle takes place in a castle whose deranged perspective tops that of the Royal Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty, but Slava Okunev’s costumes are gorgeous. I wonder how those who were offended by Twyla Tharp’s treatment of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony feel about Eifman’s peculiar responses to it and to the Mahler that accompanies the torments of Act II.

Eliot Feld has made it clear that he shuns certain kinds of artifice—the conventions of ballet romanticism, say, and a glossy performance style. Ironically, he has developed an addiction to whimsy. nodrog doggo—what kind of title is that? It reads like a British crossword clue and, in fact, conceals the name of its composer, Peter Gordon.

Gordon’s powerful composition, with its analogous title, I Buried Paul, is anything but veiled. A chugging beat anchors escalating bursts of instrumental madness. The music suits a dance that’s part jungle ritual, part gang confab. Seven men enter slowly in a clump, some carried along; at first, they’re illuminated only by flat flashlights hidden in their gloved hands. Wearing G-strings and headgear by Willa Kim, they stay close to one another almost the whole time, whether they stare motionless at the audience, sway (menacingly? inquisitively?), wig-wag their legs in a rapid run on air, or pound the floor in springy steps reminiscent of American Indian dances. Tricks with the lights give them a not quite human look, akin to the creatures in Paul Taylor’s Three Epitaphs. They can make their lit-up faces shine through fences of their fingers, and we can hear their teeth snap down when Gordon’s rhythmic clamor pauses.

One man (Nickemil Concepcion) jumps and falls thrashing and is gradually calmed and returned to the encircling, pulsing group by another (Jason Jordan). When the men repeat their initial clump, they look less like an eye-catching sculptural display and more like warriors after a battle. Feld’s blend of humor and seriousness has its low points (retreating, the vivid guys light up their own buttocks in a free-form canon). But the dance is gripping and very interesting.

Cherokee Rose, Feld’s wonderful 1999 solo for Patricia Tuthill to recorded songs and guitar tunes by Jerry Douglas and Peter Rowan, is as private as nodrog doggo is confrontational. The choreographer explores Tuthill’s vivid sensuality, but she doesn’t try to impress us with it. Frank Krenz has dressed Tuthill in a midriff-baring top and long, full white skirt with a border design resembling fir trees. Tuthill is also garbed in images that surface through the dancing. Swishing her skirts and prancing from foot to foot, she’s at a hoedown. Lifted, her skirt becomes a fence around her, and, in the end, she’s framed in it like a Madonna in a shell. When she kneels (black kneepads complete the costume), she might be a mythic Indian maiden mourning beside a river. But nothing in the solo is this literal. Tuthill explores her terrain, rendering familiar Feld motifs—slow circles of hips and torso, one foot darting out and pulling in while she bounces up and down on the other leg, shoulders wrangling (now me forward, now me)—fresh, personal, and profoundly alluring.

In Memoriam. Anna Sokolow’s size—she was small—in no way matched her fierceness. She was one of the powerful women in Martha Graham’s company of the 1930s and during the Depression made works wrenched from the social conscience she developed as the child of immigrants, growing up poor on New York’s Lower East Side. In dances—like the great 1955 Rooms—that she created for her company and others, she articulated in passionate abstractions themes of urban isolation and despair. Even reaching for one another, dancers averted their heads or arched their bodies, as if fulfillment were imperiled from the start. Lyricism bloomed like a plant pushing its way up through cracks in the pavement. She was tough-minded as a composition teacher too. No student could get away with decorativeness or the unpondered gesture. Movement had to come from the gut. Audiences didn’t leave her concerts smiling; they left stirred, altered, shaken awake.