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Theatre & Performance Tchaikovsky Pro et Contra features high-quality dancing marred by speed and showiness

The quality of the dancing is quite high; Eifman’s company is full of pristinely trained classical dancers.

Evgeny Matveev/Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg

Title: Tchaikovsky Pro et Contra

Choreography: Boris Eifman

Music: Tchaikovsky

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Presented by: The Eifman Ballet and the Sony Centre in Toronto

Boris Eifman is a divisive choreographer. The Siberian-born artist, who founded the Eifman Ballet in Leningrad in 1977, has a distinctive style that’s typically loved or loathed. To call it dramatic would be an understatement. It’s breathless, mannered, excessive and gymnastic, abounding with outlandish costumes and stagey lights. Imagine Celine Dion singing Wagner in a rococo-replica church on a sinking ship and you’ll get a vague sense of Eifman’s aesthetic idiom, not to mention the emotive drive beneath it. His cast might have fared well at the Met Gala last week, with its much-scrutinized theme of “camp.”

Eifman considers himself something of a psychoanalyst when it comes to portraying his subjects. His focus is the story ballet; he adapts canonical novels such as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night into full-evening productions, or creates bio-ballets on figures including sculptor Auguste Rodin and Russian ballerina Olga Spessivtseva. His latest ballet, Tchaikovsky Pro et Contra, which opened at Toronto’s Sony Centre on Thursday to a largely Russian-speaking crowd, falls into the latter category. The ballet unfolds via flashback from the composer’s deathbed and chronicles his adult life – a chronicle that’s haunted by Tchaikovsky’s alter ego and visions/interactions from his own balletic creations.

In terms of structure, Tchaikovsky brings to mind John Neumeier’s 2000 ballet Nijinsky, which engenders a similar porousness between real and fictional worlds. However, Neumeier’s ballet was full of character development, space, subtlety. Through moments of stillness and sensitivity, Neumeier took time to develop relationships between his characters, thus giving his audience the opportunity to invest emotionally. Eifman, by contrast, seems to adhere to the school of fast is better and spectacle matters the most. The first act of Tchaikovsky is a madcap blur of balls, street scenes and groups of ostentatiously dressed characters, sequined birds or bare-chested men in skirts with suspenders. In the title role, Oleg Gabyshev seems to flounder inside this showy traffic, deprived of much opportunity to reveal what he wants, thinks or feels. You can imagine Boris Eifman sitting in the wings and snapping his fingers: “next, next, next.”

Not that this speed isn’t without its moments of impressiveness. Near the beginning of Act 1, an ensemble of dancers in long dark coats and umbrellas sweep onto the stage, creating a rush of unified movement that feels painterly, imagistic – a Gustave Caillebotte street scene come to life. Later, a lovely image is created through a flocking of white swans, who bourrée diagonally across the stage in short tutus, replicating the arched backs and aquatic arms so definitive of Swan Lake. But Tchaikovsky’s personal life feels lost inside these recreations (which are set largely to the composer’s symphonies rather than his original ballet music). Eifman makes Tchaikovsky’s wife Antonina Milyukova (Lyubov Andreueva), and his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck (Alina Petrovskaya), the two major relationships of the composer’s life. But why he married Antonina, and why their relationship soured so quickly – to the extent that he “imagines” smothering her to death with a pillow – remains opaque. Perhaps no ballet is complete without a little superfluous violence against women. (And this representation of spousal murder can’t sit well in Toronto this week, with the sentencing of Mohammed Shamji.)

In terms of structure, Tchaikovsky brings to mind John Neumeier’s 2000 ballet Nijinsky, which engenders a similar porousness between real and fictional worlds.

Evgeny Matveev/Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg

The quality of the dancing is quite high; Eifman’s company is full of pristinely trained classical dancers. But I couldn’t help but feel that the showiness of the choreography – the very high legs, acrobatic lifts and mannered partnering – prevented the dancers from actually inhabiting their roles and dancing expressively. Instead, they seemed to do a sort of “emotive marking,” hitting one dramatic position after another, but finding little in the way of connective tissue, or motivation, between. Tchaikovsky’s alleged homosexuality becomes a throwaway allusion that fixates only on the physical. Eifman suggests the composer’s interest in men through a rippling duet performed in skin-toned underwear between the title character and his alter ego, and by a casino scene full of erotic insinuations. Neither has much subtlety.

However, going by the rapturous standing ovation, none of this seemed to decrease the audience’s enjoyment. Eifman might be contentious among critics, but his populist magic hasn’t ceased to please the crowds.

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Tchaikovsky Pro et Contra continues until May 11 (sonycentre.ca).

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