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What makes this bird fly?

Boris Eifman's `Seagull' soars with brilliant dancing and stagecraft. Still, there are flaws.

March 19, 2007|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

Premiered in January and still reportedly subject to revision, Boris Eifman's "The Seagull" contains some of the Russian choreographer's most inspired solos and duets.

From the superbly twisty, stream-of-consciousness opening passage for Dmitri Fisher through its recapitulation into madness at the end, this two-act Chekhovian dance drama -- given the first of four weekend performances with alternating casts Friday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center -- confirms Eifman's knack for inventive, passionate transformations of the ballet vocabulary.

Like John Neumeier in "Death in Venice" (seen on this same stage a month ago), Eifman has taken a literary classic focused on a writer's crisis and transferred it to the contemporary ballet world. The basic contours of Chekhov's play are intact: There's an aging star (Nina Zmievets) bedeviled by both an anguished, talented son (Fisher) and an unfaithful lover prominent in the art world (Yuri Smelakov). And there's an ambitious young girl (Maria Abashova) adored by that son and betrayed by that lover.

Here, however, the characters are dancers or choreographers, and it's a major failing that you can't always tell when they're rehearsing, performing or envisioning ballets-within-the-ballet and when they're expressing their deepest feelings to one another. Moreover, many of the ensemble sequences look like padding -- including a hip-hop divertissement that gives the corps of the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg a new kind of challenge but has no effect on the major characters or plot line of the work.

Helping dramatize the conflict between tradition and modernity inherent in the Smelakov-Fisher relationship, the taped score ricochets between Rachmaninoff (with a bit of Scriabin) and new music assembled by the company's sound engineer, Leonid Eremin. Eifman remains infinitely resourceful when it comes to stagecraft, and his production team gives him one brilliant coup de theatre after another: the walls of Zinovy Margolin's set closing in on Fisher or expanding to form a mirrored ballet studio, the lighting by Gleb Filshtinsky isolating characters in simultaneous outbursts of pain or drawing a line between past and present.

Yet if the look of "The Seagull" is defined with bold surety, Eifman still hasn't found the ballet's ideal dramatic shape or clarified the identities of his characters early enough to avert confusion. Indeed, he hasn't even managed to justify his borrowed title. Yes, he makes Abashova's character degrade herself as a cheesy feathered entertainer -- but after more than a century, the sight of white feathers on a ballet stage invites the audience to think of swans rather than gulls.

More seriously, he sentimentalizes the role of the rebellious, suffering young artist, leaving Fisher so unmanned by puppy love and mother love that he'd be incapable of shooting a bird, much less himself. No cruelty, no tragedy -- just four people trapped in an endless cycle of despair, dancing out their feelings.

But what dancing! Besides his role as resident seducer, Smelakov's character is a hack choreographer and oppressive company leader. But once he begins to doubt and punish himself, Eifman gives him phenomenal solos, replete with seething, prowling jump cuts between classical steps that don't or can't normally fit together but do so here, unforgettably.

Fisher gets similar opportunities in a star-making role, but it's Abashova who must change the most: starting as a playful bun-head at the barre, happily dancing in Smelakov's classical style, then trying out Fisher's experimental choreography, descending to commercial sleaze and ending in bitter maturity. The stages in her development often come via intricate, gymnastic, high-speed duets that may leave the audience breathless but never Abashova herself.

As for the alarmingly thin Zmievets, she dances faultlessly, but her role encapsulates central problems of the ballet as a whole. It's under-characterized and essentially a patchwork of extremes, reminding you how much more powerfully Eifman treated the subject of failed ballet romance in "Red Giselle" and a doomed mother-son relationship in "Russian Hamlet."

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