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Ballet three ways
Eifman’s Anna Karenina, ‘Raw Dance,’ Anna Myer

Boris Eifman’s Anna Karenina had very little to do with Leo Tolstoy’s novel or Peter Tchaikovsky’s music; the real propellant behind it was the self-proclaimed genius of its choreographer. For opening night and evidently the remaining four performances of the ballet at the Cutler Majestic last week by the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg, no house programs were provided. Patrons were told to buy the $15 souvenir book, which enabled them to become amply familiar with Boris Eifman’s philosophy and artistic gifts but left them in the dark about the specific performance and casting.

I do have to say that the ballet was a gorgeous spectacle (sets by Zinovy Margolin, costumes by Slava Okunev, lighting by Gleb Filshtinsky) and a very successful example of through-danced storytelling. Without acknowledging them, Eifman follows his Soviet predecessors, especially Yuri Grigorovich, who perfected the all-dance, evening-length ballet formula more than 40 years ago.

The movement vocabulary is classical — that is, the athletic side of classical: turning, jumping, extensions, preferably taken on the run or multiplied by 12 or 24 dancers doing it at the same time. Every move is pitched at the same keyed-up energy level. The ensembles adopt characteristic gestures or movement traits. In a scene where the principals are ostracized by society, for instance, contemptuous shoulder shrugs, palm shakes, and foot scrapes are embedded in the dancing to create a collective feeling tone without the encumbrance of pantomime. The duets use body contact and distortion — grapplings and twistings, distended limbs and somersaulting lifts, submissive weighted falls — and leaping, pirouettes, pointe work, to convey feelings on a more personal level.

Eifman’s dancers are splendid and extravagantly hardworking. His work is so accomplished, so lucid, so invested in the splashy popular image of ballet dancing, that the least sophisticated audience can reap its rewards. What more could one want? Well, a lot that falls on the other side of accessibility and immediate ravishment.

Eifman’s Anna Karenina reduces Tolstoy to your basic love triangle. An excruciatingly complex and compassionate study of character, within a sweeping portrait of a society about to topple into modernism, is shrunken to a succession of ever-more-tortured duets. An anonymous corps de ballet represents, variously, the hedonistic society that disapproves of the lovers and the guilty conscience that torments the heroine. Eifman’s sex-crazed Anna (Maria Abashova on opening night), wronged and distraught Karenin (Albert Galichanin), and feckless Vronsky (Yuri Smekalov) can sustain but two emotions: passionate desire and passionate jealousy. Kitty (Natalia Povorozniuk), Vronsky’s girlfriend at the beginning of the ballet, disappears after he and Anna have locked eyes for the first time. Levin, the novel’s honorable humanist and its true hero, has been deleted.

There’s more depth and compassion on any page of Tolstoy than in the whole of Eifman’s ballet. His skeletal drama is a generic romance. With a few more preening males and neurotic, crotch-sprung women, or a few less, it could be Manon Lescaut, or Carmen, or a Joan Crawford movie.

Eifman utilizes the music for his own purposes as well. We do hear unidentified selections from Tchaikovsky’s symphonic works on tape, but they serve primarily as mood music. There are bumptious references to George Balanchine’s ballets. The overture is the section of the Serenade for Strings that Balanchine used for the beginning of Serenade, and the Polonaise that ends the Third Orchestral Suite (known in the Balanchine canon as the last section of Theme and Variations) accompanied one of many party dances. Ignoring the music’s period lilt and flourishes, the dancers caroused in commedia dell’arte masks and costumes. The electronic squeals and fright sounds that accompanied Anna’s nightmares were created by an uncredited composer.

AS A POSTSCRIPT to the season, Boston Ballet’s Gianni Di Marco and Viktor Plotnikov presented a new edition of their Raw Dance workshop at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Cyclorama. The performances give company members a chance to choreograph on their colleagues and to show work in an informal setting. The audience gets to see the dancers up close and in different roles from those it’s accustomed to. Principals let their hair down; corps members take the spotlight. The choreographers this spring, in addition to Di Marco and Plotnikov, were Yuri Yanowsky and Heather Myers.

Viktor Plotnikov accounted for five of the 10 short dances on this program. Both he and Di Marco were working quite consistently to feature the particular abilities of the dancers, with solos and duets that were like character or technical studies, crammed with steps, events, attitude, and not much in the way of choreographic shaping.

Yanowsky’s duet for Kathleen Breen Combes and Jared Nelson, based on a Pablo Neruda poem, provided glimpses of a country romance but depended mostly on fast, showy partner work. The more intricate group pieces, Plotnikov’s final sextet, a trio by Heather Myers, and a quartet by Di Marco, slid buffoonish comedy and Dadaistic prop play in amid the array of steps.

COMPARED WITH the effusive pyrotechnics of Eifman and most other contemporary dance, Anna Myer’s work is so restrained, it’s almost undetectable. You think you’re looking at something elementary, but it gathers emotional force, through entirely different channels from what were first apparent. Myer and Dancers took over Boston Ballet’s enormous top-floor studio for the weekend while the company members were showing their own choreography around the corner. I used to wonder what Myer might do if invited to make a piece for Boston Ballet, but now I think her sensibility might not be a good fit.

Myer offered the Boston premiere of a big new work, All at Once, to music by Jakov Jakoulov for the five cellos, six violins, and double bass of the New England String Ensemble, which was conducted by Susan Davenny Wyner. Dance audiences get to hear a lot more music than the average theatergoer, but after a season of over-amplified, hissy-taped, electronically adulterated, sampled, chopped-up, and remixed stuff, it was heaven just to hear a serious live composition in a lively space. For each of the four sections, the dancers repositioned the players’ music stands and silver stools, to evoke new sonic textures as well as visual effects.

Besides that, the spatial realignments were choreographed, as grave and formal processions that suggested the music and the dancing were interwoven. Throughout, the five female and four male dancers used a vocabulary of scooping, perching, tilting, turning moves initiated by an arm curved in front of the chest. Most of the time, they were traveling around or among the musicians, but at moments they would freeze in poses on tiptoe, or be held and gently lowered to the floor by a partner.

The movement could have been abstract, but the dissonant third musical section seemed to be pulling the processions into some darker place. I was thinking of a funeral. The music and the dancing grew more agitated. With turns and swiveling arms, falls and gestural exclamations, the dancers drew closer together, their moves became smaller and smaller, until they were clustered in a tight group. The music ended on a scream, and they stood with their arms straight up in the air.

But this wasn’t the end. For the last part, the violinists stood in a semicircle with Wyner in the center and the dancers developing their thematic material: lifting one another, lying on the floor in comfortable pairs, kneeling at the side to watch the music. Finally they stepped in a scalloping, lunging circle around Wyner, as if she could give them a new direction.

The concert also included a premiere for six women, Bach Deco Suites, to two selections from the Suites for Unaccompanied Cello (the Sarabande from BWV 1012 and the Prelude from BWV 1008) played by Eliza Jacques. The dance felt slight — maybe it’s the first parts of what will be a longer work. The unadorned cello made me aware of how hard it must be to do Myer’s unadorned movement in a musical way. You also notice how she works with this limited vocabulary from one piece to another — the walking, gently scooping arms and upper bodies, strong steady relevés, a few vigorous runs and jumps — and how understated the dancers are about showing it to the audience.

Myer opened the program with her enchanting 1998 Blue Bird, where six dancers and seven small children dance together to ’60s pop songs. The kids hook up with adult partners and they work together, making formal patterns out of the everyday stuff of teaching and learning, playing, resting, hugging. The kids’ part is often quite complicated, and sometimes they even work out a game before the grown-ups do. What they’re doing is choreography after all.

Issue Date: May 27 - June 2, 2005
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