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Les Grands Ballets: Tchaikovski et son double

Posted by Stefan / February 21, 2009

If Boris Eifman, founder and director of the Eifman Ballet Theatre of St. Petersburg, were to go bowling, would he bring his own monogrammed ball? What, we may wonder, tops Mr. Eifman’s Polish sausage, provided of course that he can afford the meat in the first place? Just how many of his dancers does it take to screw in a light bulb? Note the naivety of this last question, as it assumes that there is electricity in Eastern Europe... And so on, ad naseum, until someone makes a Russian inversion. Indeed, a treasure trove of caricatures exists to belittle and cast aside anyone and anything hailing from the wrong side of the tattered, but persistently relevant Iron Curtain. Yet whatever inept image of the Slavic world one adopts, it is bound to be rendered moot against the crushing beauty and powerful grace of Tchaikovski et son double. Can North Americans accept mastery from so maligned a people and place?

Tchaikovski et son double arrived in Montreal this weekend, with a long pedigree from St. Petersburg and receptive audiences in New York and Paris. The ballet begins with the moments preceding Tchaikovsky’s death, and proceeds to unravel the many layers of his torment. The great composer’s suppressed homosexuality, old news by now, features prominently in but does not define the work. Instead, the artist is pitted against himself, torn between cherished beliefs and earthly desires, and the tempestuous relationships that emerge. Rich, emotive costumes and beautiful music slowly give way to the inevitable solitude and anguish of his death. In the end, the composer does not go gently. He and his fire are extinguished, the ashes removed by a faceless, robotic mass. Only his work and its beauty, divorced and therefore protected from its creator, persist. In turning our gaze toward Tchaikovsky himself, Eifman succeeds in humanizing his subject without diminishing his genius or exploiting his suffering. Where traditional accounts approach hagiography, Eifman uncovers the composer’s frailty. The result is an indictment of idol-worship that transforms the artist into an object, co-opting his personhood for the anathematic purpose of national propaganda.

To my undertrained eye, there was something unsettling about the relentless blossoming of dancers on stage. While soloists were permitted to individuate, others ebbed and flowed around them, means to an end determined exclusively by Eifman’s vision. Their movements, at times inhuman in their vacillating complexity, conveyed a depth that I was not prepared to absorb. Despite being well aware that I was missing much of the nuance, the story came across clearly. At the most basic level, anyone could appreciate the physical endurance and skilful precision of the dancers. Coaching me along, a more experienced observer noted the juxtaposition of classical and modern ballet conventions; a generation brought up on self-referential indulgences might well appreciate the director’s incorporation of excerpts from Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. The artist, surrounded by a world that he himself created, is forced to pit his crumbling mind against its ripened fruits while the rest of the world applauds, ignorant or indifferent to his plight. There is no comfort to be drawn from the sublime if you feel the pain of its wellspring.

With my limited knowledge of ballet, it was difficult not to be distracted by the refutation of cultural stereotypes implicit in the evening’s dazzling beauty. Eastern Europe, after all, occupies a less than flattering space in the North American psyche. Consonant -heavy surnames conjure images of frightened, emaciated, babushka wearing peasants, or beastly, superstitious men covered in soot and grease. Indifference and invisibility characterize their plight; not sufficiently exotic to merit fetishization, their perceived cultural, economic, and aesthetic inadequacies attract condescending and guilt-free opprobrium. Adopting quiet, dismissive exclusion as their means, those seeking to banalize everything east of the Danube can do so from the comfort of their misconstrued traditions, without acknowledging deeply rooted coexistence. And yet anyone present could not escape or deny the marvellous display of artistry and wonder, somehow arising from a country defined in our collective imagination by food rations, corruption, and tragedy.

It is axiomatic that there are many Russias. The tensions between Europe and Asia, not to mention an ambivalent tradition of exceptionalism, are the departure point for speculation into the Russian psyche (whatever that is). With each version an accompanying narrative explains each failure and, where necessary, rationalizes every success. Communism was a flop not because Marx (a German) was wrong, but because Lenin (a Russian) muddled his ideas. Even post-Communist recovery was bungled, we are told, with Russian wealth regularly characterized as vulgar. Conversely, we can accept Dostoevsky’s genius because we see it to be of the tortured variety. Along the same lines Soviet achievements are grudgingly acknowledged, but invariably diminished against the backdrop of their human toll. Certainly, Eifman’s ballet can be reconciled with this ossified version of Russia. It is, after all, a story of torment, persecution, and suffering. But it can likewise be a lens through which to acknowledge how little we understand about the people your parents were taught to despise.

Photo by A. Sazonov, taken from Les Grands Ballets website.



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