Boris Eifman is a culture hero—a Jew and a renegade who, 25 years ago, founded in St. Petersburg an independent dance company, undaunted by Soviet efforts at censorship and control. Eifman is also a showman. In their own contemporary, balletic, often tortured way, his works have something in common with 19th-century spectacle-extravaganzas, in which wizardry with fabric and lights and girls in plumage descending from above thrilled spectators to pieces.
Consider Tchaikovsky—The Mystery of Life and Death. The company opened its City Center season (through April 14) with a work shown on the Eifman Ballet’s first appearances here in 1998. Like most of his two-act pieces, it focuses on a giant figure from history or literature (the upcoming Pinocchio may be an exception) and, in effect, puts him on the couch. Maybe on the cross too; friends keep supporting the dying Tchaikovsky in pietàs. The fabric effects are wildly symbolic. The composer (danced by Albert Galichanin), swinging from almost constant agony to bewilderment to mirthless revelry, is ensnared in his crazed wife’s bridal veil. When she (Yelena Kuzmina) really goes nuts (her arabesques unimpaired, however), great dark veils loop down and imprison her. At Tchaikovsky’s death, his alter ego (Igor Markov) is escorted away by a cortege of bourréeing bird-women out of Swan Lake, while the composer himself lies spread-eagled, head downward on a tilted table, and men in suits draw a black veil over him. Creepily, you can still see his shrouded outline, like markings on an insect’s carapace.
The ballet begins with the composer on his deathbed remembering his life. The lengthy program synopsis can’t clarify his tormented encounters with his libidinous wife; his benefactor Nadezhda von Meck (Vera Arbuzova), who also appears as the wicked Carabosse and the Queen of Spades; a princely Siegfried (Alexi Turko), who is also a desirable youth and a raunchy leader of erotic games; and the haunted-eyed double who leads Peter Ilyich into his deepest desires. Only a short dance with a baton tells us that he ever had time to write the music we’re hearing. In ballet steps crooked, crabbed, and splayed to express emotion lavishly, the composer is beset by his own creations—protective white swans, nastily virtuosic male black ones—and politely applauding couples. His happiest moment (and one of the ballet’s most vivid) comes in a homoerotic orgy on and around a large table. To the Capriccio Italien.
How rare is originality? Very. I don’t mean originality as in being the first dancer to pee onstage (Marie Chouinard, as I remember), but in devising movements and putting them together in unexpected ways. Donna Uchizono has ranked high on my originals list since 1989, when she first began showing work in New York.
Often a single strong, gestural idea shapes her strange, elegant pieces. State of Heads (1999) begins with a crash and a burst of blinding white light (Stan Pressner created the superb lighting for Uchizono’s recent DTW concerts at the Duke). Carla Rudiger and Rebecca Serrell waddle onstage, stop, peer around. In their lumpy white dresses, they look like birds trying to fathom unfamiliar terrain. At the sound of flushing water in James Lo’s fascinating, silence-pitted score, they toddle forward. What’s so odd about them—and white-suited Levi Gonzalez when he joins them—is the way they use their heads; nodding, tilting, and craning, these heads look always at odds with the bodies they’re attached to, even though the three strip off their outer garments and hurl themselves through space. This is their world; this is how they are. Maybe others like them live down the block.
State of Heads occurs in an all-white world, occasionally colored by light. Uchizono’s new Low takes place in a glowing, all-black one. Low was inspired by the choreographer’s two residencies in Argentina and a piece she created in a workshop there. Oh, and by her tango lessons. But this dance is nothing like your usual staged Latin number, nor does Guy Yarden’s excellent music kowtow to those Piazzolla rhythms. His references to the real thing, like Uchizono’s, are subtle and entrancingly weird. Uchizono keeps her dancers floorbound for a long time. Gonzalez lies with Rudiger draped over him. Francisco Rider Da Silva lies unencumbered. Squirming to revolve, the men work their feet in variants of intricate tango steps. They wear black suits (costumes by Wendy Winters), and Rudiger’s in a sleek dress with “feathers” of black leather (she scatters real feathers over the stage). Once on their feet, the two men dance close, but constantly skew their torsos in relation to one another. All three move in a revolving cluster around a counterclockwise circle. Rudiger bends extravagantly back, and they all dart their feet out, snake their legs around and between one another’s. Sensual yet cool, this is tango in ingenious free fall.
The program for Nami Yamamoto’s new work at P.S. 122 late in March pictures the choreographer as a tyke, a big smile on her tiny face. She starts the evening smiling like that, but after a while, she’s quaking as she strains to hold the happy grin and silent laugh. Her piece—marvelously performed by the choreographer, Johanna S. Meyer, and Karen Sherman, with the intermittent collaboration of the five-man band Izititiz—is titled Freedumb. Free to be dumb? Is that what the title of this zany, scattershot, serious-at-heart political theater piece means?
Naoka Nagata’s tights-and-T outfits for Yamamoto and Sherman are lollipop bright (Meyer’s in a lavender dress with a corsage). Sherman wears a South Park figurine strapped to her arm, and at one point the band lines up and tries to follow projections from an arcade dance machine. But silent crying and noisy screams figure, as well as laughter. An effort by Meyer and Yamamoto to agree on how they met (in a nightclub chorus line?) seems both funny and ominous—as if neither really remembers anything.
At one point, Sherman lies inert, and Meyer tries to nudge her to life as a dog would—biting and pulling her shirt and pants, finally snuggling against her. One or another of the three may be subjected to stern airport interrogations or big questions that require immediate answers, like “If you have one month to live, what do you want to do?” The dancers hold up and identify flags before sticking them in little blocks; three are U.S. flags. After a series of ferocious all-out matches, the flags become sort of trophies. By twisting her own pant leg, one woman can administer terrible pain to another.
The piece is entertaining, smart, but a bit disorganized. Disjointedness is a way of life. None of the little episodes—funny or tragic or frightening—affects what follows it. This country’s in trouble, seems to be the message. There’s even a possible solution. After a speech on the joys of farting, Yamamoto yells, “I want to tell all Americans, ‘Free your ass!’ ” It’s an idea.