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It's all flash, and that's not a bad thing

Boris Eifman's love of art shines through the pyrotechnics of 'Don Juan and Moliere.'

June 02, 2005|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

More than anything else, "Don Juan and Moliere" is Boris Eifman's tribute to the theater and all the imagination and energy it sets free.

Dominated by a high gilded proscenium at the back of the stage, this two-act double narrative shows the 17th century French playwright escaping from his painful domestic relationships into the fantasies of unrestrained license he creates in a drama about the rakish Don Juan.

At the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, it displayed again the remarkable technical prowess, stylistic versatility and dramatic power of the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg -- though you might argue that designer Slava Okunev outperformed everyone with scenic vistas and corps costumes of alternately haunting and flamboyant splendor.

Mysterious figures swirling crimson capes, clowns capering in gleaming white, a coldly glittering ballroom, an altar as creepy as a cemetery, a vision of Louis XIV as the Sun King: Okunev supplied Eifman with so many flashes of inspiration that the ballet moves less from scene to scene than from effect to effect.

And that's a problem, for this is perhaps the least emotionally involving Eifman work yet seen in Southern California: two stories told with half the feeling of "Red Giselle" or "Tchaikovsky" or "Russian Hamlet."

Set to taped music by Mozart and Berlioz, it uses a bold choreographic shorthand to summarize the characters' crises. But we never really get to know them, so their complex gymnastic interplay always looms larger than their loves and hates.

At once a popularizer and a reformer, Eifman is so intent on liberating classical technique and the way stories are told on ballet stages from 19th century norms that he sometimes overloads the former with twisty contortions and sometimes undercuts the latter with counterproductive distancing ploys.

The result can leave you guessing. Albert Galichanin as Moliere expertly executes the antic, fussy and sometimes sprawling vocabulary that Eifman adopts for the French scenes. But how much genuine anguish can Moliere convey over his wife's infidelity when Eifman puts him under the very table on which she's being lustfully pawed by two suitors?

Similarly, the suicide of Don Juan's prey Donna Anna stirs no sympathy but simply marks the end of a particularly flashy pas de deux, releasing him into a particularly flashy series of air turns. Vera Arbuzova and Alexei Turko dance magnificently, but even they can't endow showpiece choreography with dramatic depth. It's just not in the steps.

Donna Elvira (Maria Abashova) gets even less characterization: She's just one more nun for Juan to grope, and the use of the Agnus Dei from Mozart's sublime Missa Solemnis for her deflowering comes off as really, really cheap.

In such moments, you might conclude that Eifman has gone out of control, hooked on crude bravura and cruder sexuality to the near-destruction of everything that made him admirable as a ballet storyteller in other works. Or you could decide that he's up to something different here -- that Okunev's stage-within-a-stage signals that all the characters we meet are trapped within rigid theatrical conventions, Juan and Moliere most of all.

Juan may hate his role as archetypal seducer -- and Eifman shows him not only rebelling against Moliere's mandates but despising the women who merrily eat and drink as a prelude to giving him what he doesn't really want. However, that trapdoor into hell will not be denied, and Juan glumly plays the finale as written.

As for Moliere, he created Juan and thinks of himself as central to the lives of his theater company, family and friends: an icon of free will. But fate has cast him as the old man with a young wife -- and that farce must also be played out to the end.

Only just before his death, when he makes one last attempt to instruct and inspire his company, does Moliere completely break free and live fully, without reference to the rules of how characters behave in comedy or tragedy. Shaping the future, he escapes the past.

In those moments, even more than in the classroom scene from "Red Giselle," we suddenly see how much dance means to Eifman, how working with his dancers has made every problem and disappointment in his turbulent life worth bearing.

This is the truest, most openhearted moment in the whole evening, and even if it doesn't deepen Moliere, Juan, Anna and Elvira as characters in a dance drama, it helps explain why audiences in a troubled time might be so eager to get wrapped up in them. With all its lapses and excesses, "Don Juan and Moliere" is urgently, overwhelmingly alive, teeming with prowess of many kinds, passionately dedicated to theater as a transformative art. It's also a personal statement by someone who lives his dream, and those of us less brave can only look at it with wonder.


Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg

Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 8 p.m. today and Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

Price: $25 to $75

Info: (714) 556-2787 or


Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 7:30 p.m. June 23; 8 p.m. June 24 and 25; 2 p.m. June 26

Price: $20 to $75

Contact: (213) 365-3500 or (714) 740-7878

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