Boris Eifman’s ballet company is at the fore of contemporary St. Petersburg ballet. On July 6, 2016 the company performed “Tchaikovsky Pro et Contra” (which premiered in May 2016 in its current version, but goes back to its origins in 1993) at the Alexandrinsky Theatre. Since the early 1990s Eifman focused on the creation of large-scale psycho-dramatic ballets, and established this aesthetic form as the main direction for his company. The ballet is structured around memories of the dying composer filled with phantasmagoria, creativity, and a constant struggle with oneself (personified by the composer’s double, performed by the soloist Sergey Volobuev). We first encounter Tchaikovsky (Oleg Gabyshev) on his deathbed, as his life is flashing before his eyes as a delirious, wondrous dream. Allusions to the composer’s great works – The Nutcracker and Swan Lake – are aligned with fantasies from the operas Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades. The composer’s double, a personification of his complicated and tragic nature, is presented through the protagonists Rothbart, Drosselmeyer, Onegin, and Herman. The two women in his life, his wife Antonina Milyukova (performed by Lyubov Andreyeva) and his patroness Countess von Meck (Maria Abashova) represent two opposite sides of his creative spectrum – one supporting and celebrating his creative work, the other seemingly pulling him away from it. Thus, Eifman provides an inner and an outer portrait of the composer’s life and work, drawing out the complexities of a creative mind and a restless soul.
“Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is a creator, whose music has guided me for decades and given me creative energy,” Boris Eifman explained.”His works immerse the listener in the indomitable flow of feelings, awaken dreams and fantasies, transforming us. I have always tried to understand why the composer, who reached enormous fame and completely fulfilled his talent created such a tragic music. There is no doubt that the main source of his torment was the oppressive awareness of his own otherness, interpreted by Tchaikovsky as a curse. The hostility of the world and his eternal loneliness deprived him of the hope of finding peace and happiness. How a great artist creates his masterpieces is always a mystery. It is just as difficult to understand this as it is to fathom his private life. First of all, where lies the dividing line between commonplace trivialities and the artist’s creative work? In his life, these two components are intertwined. Joy and suffering, victory and defeat, the heights of rationality and storms of passion – all placed on the altar of great achievements in art. This is the destiny of any artist; he is constantly surrounded by both enthusiastic admirers and detractors. Tchaikovsky’s life is a non-stop dialogue with himself; his music is a confession, full of pain and anger.”
The use of doubles (as a personification of a split personality or the inner complexities and contradictions of his protagonists) is a common trope in Eifman’s ballets. In Tchaikovsky, dancers appear and disappear from behind covers, sheets of fabric, and capes. In this ballet, Eifman makes great use of the theme of the heights of creativity and the lows of loneliness, as we watch the man who created so much beauty and wonder go through mental torments. Unable to find fulfillment in (heterosexual) relationships, Tchaikovsky escapes into art. This inner struggle is reflected in his work as a battle between light and darkness (white and black swans). The corps de ballet scenes are choreographed with particularly inventive mastery, symmetry, rhythmic and visual skill. Eifman juxtaposes the tense, un-harmonious pas de deux between Tchaikovsky and his unloved wife (who eventually goes mad), with life-filled and loving pas de deux between the composer and his double/alter ego, or between Onegin and Lensky. The price of such immense creativity in the composer’s life, as it appears, is that of personal unfulfillment and continuous, difficult identity struggle and alienation.
Although musically precocious, Tchaikovsky was educated as a civil servant. There was scant opportunity for a musical career in Russia at that time and no system of public music education. When an opportunity for such an education arose, he entered the nascent Saint Petersburg Conservatory, from which he graduated in 1865. The Western-oriented education he received there set him apart from composers of the contemporary nationalist movement embodied by the Russian composers. The principles that governed melody, harmony and other fundamentals of Russian music ran completely counter to those that governed Western European music; this seemed to defeat the potential for using Russian music in large-scale Western composition or from forming a composite style, and it caused personal antipathies that dented Tchaikovsky’s self-confidence. Russian culture exhibited a split personality, with its native Slavic and adopted Western elements having drifted apart increasingly since the time of Peter the Great. This resulted in uncertainty among the intelligentsia about the country’s national identity—an ambiguity mirrored in Tchaikovsky’s career. Despite his many popular successes, Tchaikovsky’s life was punctuated by personal crises and depression. Contributory factors included his early separation from his mother for boarding school, followed by his mother’s early death, the death of his close friend and colleague Nikolai Rubinstein, and the collapse of the one enduring relationship of his adult life, which was his 13-year association with the wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck. His homosexuality, which he kept private, has traditionally also been considered a major factor, though some musicologists now downplay its importance. Tchaikovsky’s sudden death at the age of 53 is generally ascribed to cholera; there is an ongoing debate as to whether it was accidental or self-inflicted.
Despite Soviet efforts to expunge all references to same-sex attraction and portray him as a heterosexual, most biographers have generally agreed that Tchaikovsky was gay. Relevant portions of his brother Modest’s autobiography, where he tells of the composer’s sexual orientation, have been published, as have letters previously suppressed by Soviet censors in which Tchaikovsky openly writes of it. In 1877, at the age of 37, he wed a former student, Antonina Milyukova. The marriage was a disaster. Mismatched psychologically and sexually, the couple lived together for only two and a half months before Tchaikovsky left, overwrought emotionally and suffering from an acute writer’s block. The emotional and financial support of Nadezhda von Meck, the widow of a railway magnate, allowed him to focus exclusively on composition. Tchaikovsky remained abroad for a year after the disintegration of his marriage. During this time, he completed Eugene Onegin, orchestrated his Fourth Symphony, and composed the Violin Concerto.
Eifman Ballet has been around for over 35 years in St.Petersburg, but the company still does not have its own stage. Currently under construction in the Petrogradsky district, the Dance Palace that will host the Eifman Ballet company will be an international choreographic arts centre. It will house three ballet companies that represent three ages of Russian ballet. The first will be a troupe of classical ballet style engaged in the preservation and revival of the classical ballet heritage of the 19th century and the masterpieces of the Soviet time. The second company will be Eifman Ballet representing the psychological ballet theatre tradition and pursuing the goal of creating and staging an original ballet repertoire of today’s Russia.The third company will be devoted to searching for and developing the methods and forms of ballet arts of the 21st century. This experimental group of dancers shall become a workshop for young choreographers and an “art incubator” aimed at revealing and nurturing new leaders of world ballet.
The Boris Eifman Dance Academy was established by Boris Eifman and the government of St. Petersburg in 2012. In addition to classrooms and offices there are 14 ballet rooms, student dorms, conference and assembly halls, a sports complex with a swimming pool, a catering facility, a health centre, and a hybrid library. The Dance Academy is an educational institution that combines general education with secondary vocational education, and is a standard-bearer of the all-Russian search and support of talented children. In 2013 ninety children from different regions of Russia were enrolled to study in the Academy. Preferences were given to talented children from underprivileged, large and single-parent families. The first ever academic year of the Dance Academy started on September 2, 2013.
In an interview from 2013, Boris Eifman explained the emotional depth of his ballets: “Our theatre provides catharsis. Today, it is not easy to get the audience to leave their tv or computer screens, come to the theatre and spend their time and money on ballet. Our audiences know that they will get the kind of emotional charge, which they will not get anywhere else. They know that these emotions are necessary to go on with their often not easy lives because emotional accumulation and re-charging is necessary for us all. And our ballet theatre provides that.”
Therein lies the global success of this company, an emotional jolt that allows its diverse audiences to emotionally recharge and continue their own struggles and creations in life.
All photos by Evgeny Matveev