New Russian soul

INTERVIEW. Dubbed "the man behind modern Russian ballet", choreographer Boris Eifman brings his sensationally divisive, over-the-top aesthetic to Berlin for the ballet adaptations of Anna Karenina and Onegin.

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Photo by V. Baranovsky

Dubbed “the man behind modern Russian ballet”, choreographer Boris Eifman brings his sensationally divisive, over-the-top aesthetic to Berlin.

Call them thrilling masterworks or kitschy, show-offy melodramas, Boris Eifman’s productions – extravaganzas of glittery costumes and lavish stage effects that mix ballet with acrobatic and modern dance elements – have divided audiences the world over, while fully embracing the flashy aesthetics of the New Russia.

The prolific St. Petersburg choreographer brings two of his productions to Berlin as part of the Staatsballett’s IV. International Dance Summit.

What inspired you to turn Anna Karenina and Onegin from words into theatrical ballet?

Tolstoy created a unique psychoanalytic investigation into the inner world of women in Anna Karenina. He brilliantly portrayed the heroine’s path of spiritual death, rooted in her strong sexual dependence on men. Following Tolstoy’s lead, I delve into the psychic world of Karenina and investigate the nature of her spiritual catastrophe.

In Onegin Pushkin wrote a brilliant archetype of the Russian character. I thought it would be interesting to bring Pushkin’s heroes into our time to see what has changed in the Russian soul over the past 200 years, and find out if its uniqueness has been preserved.

What was the initial reaction from the audience to taking non-traditional materials into the conservative world of ballet?

Anna Karenina and Onegin have met with nothing but enthusiasm from audiences all over the world for three seasons now. It’s not always been easy: in the 35 years of our theatre’s existence, we literally fought for and won our status as distinctive and original. During Soviet times, we had of course to face fierce opposition from the authorities and bureaucrats.

How difficult was it to found your own company back in 1977?

When I founded the company I understood that our work would be the antithesis of the official Soviet art of ballet, with its strict academic constraints. I started out under very tough conditions: there was no money, no rehearsal hall, nothing. To me, it’s clear that the only reason the authorities didn’t close our theatre is because they were sure that after a year of this kind of life, we’d simply give up on our own.

How do you work on each piece? Does the choreography come first? Or theatrical elements?

The creation of each production is a unique story. In essence, it’s a separate life for half a year, which I live out in the world of my characters and the music chosen for the ballet.

At the start of every new work, there is always one basic idea – a spark that ignites. It’s hard work sometimes – it’s more complicated than actually writing the choreography. But there can’t be any kind of universal method in the work of a choreographer. Creativity is always an encounter with the unknown.

Where is the border between theatre and dance? Would you still classify your work as dance?

The 20th century was a decisive era for ballet. Choreographers took dance out of the framework of theatre into the sphere of plotless abstraction. Today it’s clear that 21st-century dance shouldn’t just be a set of abstract movements to music, but rather a complete theatrical experience with a serious dramatic base, its own philosophy and deep emotional content.

So is ballet evolving closer and closer towards modern dance?

That’s exactly what we’re going after, that convergence of classical and modern and many other things in the creation of a language of 21st-century ballet. The language of abstraction in choreography no longer meets aesthetic challenges of modern times.

This is my conviction: dance should return to the mainstream traditions and rules of theatre. On that basis, the appearance of an actual language of ballet, one that modern man can relate to, will be possible. And if a ballet production stuns audiences and causes them emotional distress, it means that the choreographer has fulfilled his main purpose: to touch their heart and soul.

ANNA KARENINA Apr 19-20, 19:30, ONEGIN Apr 21-22, 19:30 | Staatsoper im Schiller Theater, Bismarckstr. 110, Charlottenburg, U-Bhf Ernst-Reuter-Platz