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Rodin: A visual feast (and a challenge for purists)

Tale of sculptor and his muse offered in an accessible, eye-catching fashion with some great performances


Directed by
Choreography by Boris Eifman
Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg
Sony Centre
Runs Until
Saturday, May 25, 2013

Boris Eifman is a phenomenon. He is the choreographer that cynical, hard-nosed dance critics love to hate, but whom audiences shower with adoration. And as for my full disclosure – I admire his work.

Now 67, he has been a going concern since 1977. That is the year he established his now-called Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg that purists condescendingly dismiss as Russia's "other ballet company" – a reference to the fact that unlike the storied classics of the Bolshoi and Kirov, Eifman choreographs contemporary ballet (meaning off-pointe).

It's easy to be derisive of the Siberian-born choreographer because he is the Douglas Sirk of ballet – Sirk being the director of four-hanky 1950s Hollywood weepers starring the likes of Lana Turner, Susan Hayward and Jane Wyman.

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In other words, Eifman creates unabashed melodramas that he calls "psychological ballet." Emotions run riot because Eifman doesn't have a subtle choreographic bone in his body.

Naked passion pours out of his oeuvre, whether it is his version of Anna Karenina or Thérèse Raquin. He has even choreographed a Russian Hamlet.

Coupled with his love of storytelling is his penchant for spectacle, meaning elaborate sets, props and costumes.

Thus, audiences expect that Eifman will tug at their heartstrings while presenting them with a visual feast – and he rarely disappoints.

For the Eifman Ballet's first-ever visit to Toronto, his company is presenting the Canadian premiere of Rodin (2011) based on the tempestuous love affair between the sculptor Auguste Rodin and his much younger muse and student, Camille Claudel.

The story has all the ingredients that Eifman loves to sink his teeth into. The sculptor (Oleg Gabyshev) met the 18-year-old Claudel (Lyubov Andreyeva) when he was 43. The affair caused enormous pain to Rodin's life-long and long-suffering companion, Rose Beuret (Nina Zmievets). Eifman skips back and forth in time, as if Rodin is an old man remembering his past.

The choreographer indulges himself in the psychological angst of the love triangle. The icing on the cake is that the gifted Claudel never got the respect she deserved for her own genius, or for the help she gave Rodin in completing his commissions.

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Tortured by Rodin's commitment to Rose, and by the lack of appreciation for her own work, Claudel goes mad. One can only imagine the joy Eifman experienced in creating the asylum scenes.

In fact, the ballet is filled with kitsch, including a gratuitous can-can scene in a Parisian bar where Claudel is drowning her sorrows in alcohol with a hunky young lover (Dmitry Fisher). And then there's the corny grape festival where Rodin first meets Rose, replete with vine-leaf crowns on the heads of the wine-harvesting ensemble. And we shouldn't forget the metal jungle gym for Rodin to swing around in his despair.

Eifman's pastiche ballet scores also come under fire for their "obviousness." For Rodin, Eifman chose French composers – Ravel, Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Satie and Massenet. In terms of the latter, who else but Eifman would pick the over-used warhorse Méditation from the opera Thaïs for Claudel's final descent into madness.

Nonetheless, even the most hard-bitten critic has to admit that Eifman is an effective ballet storyteller who never resorts to mime.

Rather, he creates unique movement patterns to carry the action. His partnering is inventive and dangerous.

On more than one occasion, the audience applauded an Eifman special effect, for example, the clever crafting of six dancers to look like a mound of clay which Rodin moulds into one of his most famous statues, The Burghers of Calais. It a stunning trompe l'oeil.

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The dancing is exquisite. The company is filled with supple dancers, with the leads being particularly talented. The amazing Andreyeva can wind her body around like a pretzel. Her mad scenes are riveting for her twists and turns.

Gabyshev has gorgeous extensions, beautifully soft landings, and a romantic air, while Zmievets has wondrous control in her angled movements of distress.

Fisher is handsome, debonair and can cut a mean tango.

Zinovy Margolin's set is a clever scaffold/staircase affair that can be moved into different configurations.

Olga Shaishmelashvili's costumes are period correct. Her tattered, white uniforms and bonnets for the asylum inmates are particularly evocative.

The upshot of seeing Rodin is that Eifman delivers ballet as accessible, eye-catching entertainment. Let's hope that he and his interesting company come our way again.

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