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Eifman Tells a Great Story


The various golden ages of Western theatrical dance never occurred when stars overwhelmed the art, or when audiences idolized technical prowess for its own sake, or when choreographers emphasized music visualization above all else. No, dance has always reached its zenith whenever stars, technique and creative zeal all focused on telling stories with a passionate immediacy: exactly what the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg prioritized Saturday in its local debut at the Universal Amphitheatre.

Like his French and English counterparts, Angelin Preljocaj and Matthew Bourne, the Siberia-born, 53-year-old Boris Eifman is a choreographer less obsessed with steps than with sweeping dramatic statements told through polyglot movement with a strong classical base. Preljocaj may be much better at contorted dance duets and Bourne may delve into his music and milieus more deeply, but nobody beats Eifman at crowd scenes: Whether depicting scruffy Russian mobs on the march, elegant Parisians crazy for jazz or teeming fantasies that spill into madness, Eifman's two-act "Red Giselle" represents a brilliant essay in large-scale pageant-dancing.

Moreover, Eifman gives each of his major characters a distinctive stance, gestural style and center of gravity, so nobody has to playact to tell the story: Dancing provides everything you need to know about everyone's feelings and actions--particularly fortunate on Saturday because no program synopsis or even a list of credits was available to anyone at the amphitheater except those who shelled out an extra 10 bucks for a souvenir program.

Set mainly to recorded music by Tchaikovsky, Schnittke and Bizet, "Red Giselle" uses the life of legendary Russian ballerina Olga Spessivtseva (1895-1991) to dramatize the conflict among high art (Sergei Basalaev as her ballet teacher), naked power (Albert Galichanin as a KGB agent) and an ideal, impossible love (Igor Markov as her dancing partner).

Pulled among these extremes, the powerful Yelena Kuzmina initially embodies every hue and facet of victimization and then suffers every hue and facet of insanity--including an extended sequence in which her personal crises and the choreography of "Giselle" merge into psychodrama. However, we never learn who she is as a person before all the victimization begins: She might be any overly trusting ballet student destined for tragedy, from the Moira Shearer ballerina in "The Red Shoes" to Gelsey Kirkland in "Dancing on My Grave."

Based on Serge Lifar, the Markov character alone changes direction during the ballet and, coupled with the dancer's personal magnetism and provocatively feline movement style, his sense of growth gives him pride of place compared with the persuasively brutal Galichanin, the deftly officious Basalaev and arguably even Kuzmina herself: impressive dancers playing one-note abstractions rather than complex individuals.

This problem ultimately robs "The Red Giselle" of the empathy that Eifman's tormented heroine deserves and that Preljocaj and Bourne (plus, of course, Tudor and De Mille) would have generated. Moreover, Eifman never explores the potent theme of cultural displacement--the possibility that Spessivtseva's impossible yearning for pre-Revolutionary Mother Russia may have weighed more heavily on her mind than losing her beloved ballet partner to another man (Sergei Zimin).

But what the ballet loses in poignancy it achieves in spectacle--starting with the resourceful onstage/backstage scenic effects of Viacheslav Okunev, complete with a dome that serves equally well as the architectural emblem of the Maryinsky Theatre and as a kind of ornate cage for Kuzmina in her final mental collapse.

However, the greatest spectacle of all comes from a large, superbly disciplined ensemble delivering choreography that not only outclasses the musty Russian modernism that the Kirov and Bolshoi occasionally inflicted on U.S. audiences, but also leaves a lot of late-20th century story ballets by European and American choreographers looking slow and bloodless.

"Red Giselle" may be far from perfect, but it out-Macmillans Kenneth Macmillan, out-Petits Roland Petit and proves, just when we needed proof, that dance drama can by as swift as thought and as vital as motion itself.

No further local performances are scheduled this season, but the company returns to Southern California in mid-March for four performances of Eifman's "Russian Hamlet" (about the son of Catherine the Great) at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

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