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A Ballet for Poor, Mad, Cruel Paul

'A Russian Hamlet,' the Story of a Disastrous Czar, Has Its West Coast Premier in Costa Mesa


Anyone who thinks history is dull hasn't been paying much attention.

Consider: In 1722, Peter the Great of Russia abolished the automatic succession of a czar's firstborn son to the throne, thus giving rulers the power to designate their successors.

Then a political maelstrom erupted.

Coups and uprisings became common. Catherine the Great (1762-1796), for instance, ascended the throne by deposing her husband--ironically, one of Peter's grandsons. She then took numerous lovers and proceeded to terrorize her son, Paul, by trying to ensure that he would not be her successor.

Paul did assume power after Catherine's death, however, but by then, he had gone completely round the bend.

Before he was assassinated by court officials, with the full support of his son and heir, his five-year reign (1796-1801) was regarded as a disaster.

"We have many history books about Paul, and we know that he was terrible. He was crazy, he was a dictator and an executioner," said choreographer Boris Eifman, who has turned Paul's story into a ballet.

Eifman's "A Russian Hamlet: The Son of Catherine the Great" gets its West Coast premiere this weekend at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

"But when I read these books, I felt that all that was not true," Eifman said in a recent phone interview from his studios in St. Petersburg.

"I felt this man was an absolutely unhappy man and a lonely man, and he spent a really very tragic life."

Because his father had been murdered by Catherine and one of her lovers, courtiers of the day already regarded Paul as a young Hamlet whose father had similarly been murdered.

"But while Hamlet's mother loved him, the Russian Hamlet never felt love from his mother," Eifman said.

"His relationship with her broke his mind. He lost contact with life and more and more went into his imagination and dreams. That's my opinion, my view of this tragic person, and I wanted to show my own vision about him in my ballet."

Eifman, 54, has been pursuing his views for a long time. He first served for 10 years as the choreographer for the renowned Vaganova Academy, the official training ground of the Kirov Ballet. But instead of churning out works of Soviet realism, he chose to support himself by freelancing for television programs, ice shows and operas.

"I wanted to open a new possibility of dance," Eifman said. "For me, dance is not only movement but an instrument for explaining very deep feelings. Above all, it is movement of the soul."

He formed his company, then called Leningrad Ballet Theater, in 1977 and soon began touring in Russia to sold-out houses. But authorities weren't happy. They even tried to get him to emigrate because he was not making authentic "Soviet art." But he chose to stay in St. Petersburg and fight it out, despite the lack of state support.

He continued to create works that had enormous popular appeal.

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, his company was not permitted to tour until the government became more liberal in 1988, when it had a spectacular success in Paris. That led to further appearances throughout Europe and in Japan, South Korea, Israel, the United States and Latin America.

Under its current name, the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg made its U.S. debut in 1998 at the City Center in New York, where it is now a resident company, the first non-American troupe to be so designated.

Southland audiences saw his "Red Giselle" at the Universal Amphitheatre in May. "Russian Hamlet," actually created for the Bolshoi Ballet, marks the company's center debut.

"When I showed this ballet the first time in Russia, people absolutely took a new look at this person," the choreographer added. "Historians who had access to documents stored in secret archives confirmed my intuition. 'I knew what practically nobody knew about him,' they said, and they agreed with me."

Eifman used music by Beethoven and Mahler in the ballet.

"Paul was a Russian czar, but he was actually German, and his mother was German and his father was German," Eifman said. "This is a German family, and I used German music for the ballet."

As a choreographer, Eifman sees some parallels between himself and Paul I.

"When I create, I am a dictator," he said. "But when my work is finished, I don't like it if dancers only illustrate my ideas. I like them to bring their talents and emotions to the work. I need this new blood in my art. My work cannot reach people without very great dancers. Fortunately, I have this kind of dancer in my company."

His latest ballet, "Don Juan," danced to music by Mozart and Berlioz, will be premiered in New York on May 11 at the end of the current tour.

"It's difficult to tour," Eifman said. "I liked it before, but now it's more than six months a year. It's difficult because I need to have time for new creations, more and more. I'm older. I want to create. I am hungry for this. I want to create each day.

"Touring takes lots of time, but I must do it. I must save my company, and I need money because we don't have government support. And we need a lot of support to save my company and do new creations."


Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 2 p.m. $20 to $60. (714) 556-2787.


Chris Pasles can be reached at (714) 966-5602 or by e-mail at

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