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Dance | REVIEW

An artist devastated, an art elevated

The Eifman company reveals the complexity of 'Red Giselle,' depicting a ballerina's descent into madness.

June 06, 2005|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

A great artist going mad is a fascinating, evergreen theme. Boris Eifman's "Red Giselle" takes it up powerfully in dramatizing the life of Russian emigre ballerina Olga Spessivtseva, one of the leading Giselles of her day, who suffered a nervous breakdown in the early 1940s. Spessivtseva spent the next two decades in a New Jersey mental hospital and her final years in a New York home for Russian exiles. She died in 1991.

The Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg made this arresting two-act work its calling card for a sensational local debut five years ago (May 2000) at what was then the Universal Amphitheatre, and the vital, engaging company danced it again over the weekend to conclude a six-day run at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

A second viewing revealed the work's layered complexity. Spessivtseva, here called simply the Ballerina, remains the central focus. But the social, political and psychological pressures on her become more generalized and emblematic. Just about everybody in it suffers in some way.

The first scenes depict a ballet class and a performance at the former imperial theater in St. Petersburg.

As the company takes its bows, up from the shadows steps a leather-clad Secret Police Agent, and soon he and the Ballerina are off in a series of pas' de deux' in which he brutally dominates her.

But the conflict is not just between him and her. The hermetic ballet world as a whole is soon violated when other agents appear, aggressively partnering the other women. Their classical purity of technique becomes a shellshocked retreat from reality. If they don't go mad, as Spessivtseva did, they look like they are equal candidates for her fate.

The revolutionary mob that chugs and chants with such fervor as it all-powerfully conquers this world, however, is itself entrapped in its high-powered but regimented energy. The KGB agent finds, too, when the Ballerina joins a line of refugees heading to the West, that he can control everyone but himself.

Later, in the second act, set in Paris, the Ballerina joins a new company led by a man called the Partner, whose creativity comes in bursts and spurts, and who rejects her for another man. Here, too, however, social freedom, especially in the jazz nightclub scene, is more apparent -- a matter of style -- than real.

Eifman choreographs clear, distinguishing movement styles to depict all these characters and groups, and cannily uses music by Tchaikovsky, Schnittke, Bizet and others to underscore the emotional values.

One of his most brilliant inventions in this regard is telescoping the events of Act I of "Giselle" to show the Ballerina's mental breakdown. The steps are the same as in the original, but their value is quite different because Adolphe Adam's sweet score has been replaced by Schnittke's edgy music.

As the Ballerina on Friday, the gorgeous, vulnerable Vera Arbuzova was already in her own world at her first appearance in the ballet class. Her dependence on men seemed fated, starting with her relationship with her teacher and continuing with the dominating KGB agent. Her gravitating immediately to the leader of the Paris company seemed part of an inevitable, unconscious pattern.

The lanky Oleg Markov was the officious, martinet Teacher, who in his duet with the Ballerina seemed less to guide her than to react with almost awestruck fear at her great talent. Albert Galichanin was the powerful, muscular Secret Police Agent, who executed an astonishing one-armed turn on the floor in his agony at the Ballerina's departure.

Alexei Turko was the feline, distant Partner, who suffers remorse after the Ballerina's fall into madness and attempts unsuccessfully to reach out to her. Anton Labunskas was his lover.

The corps danced with great discipline and energy. Slava Okunev designed the gorgeous sets and costumes.

The company will premiere Eifman's "Anna Karenina" from June 23 to June 26 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

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