Boris Eifman on creating 'a new type of theater' in ballet

Choreographer Boris Eifman talks about his new work 'Up and Down,' heading to @SegerstromArts

There are those who adore Boris Eifman and those who disdain his works, with equal vociferousness in both camps. But no one can accuse him of being anything less than true to his artistic ideals.

As American audiences have witnessed since 1998, when the Eifman Ballet made its first U.S. tour, his choreography is big on tumultuous narrative and passionately seething characters. There is nothing polite or quaint or pristinely classical about Eifman's ballets. Often based on famous historical figures or inspired by literary classics, they throb with conflict and drama. Eifman is more interested in exploring extremes of emotion through movement than in presenting an elegant display of pure dancing.

"What we create is a new type of theater: Russian psychological ballet theater," Eifman said in New York, where his company gave four performances of "Up and Down," his latest work, which will be seen at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts next weekend. "It's very important, because we try always to pursue our own path artistically and to develop our own style of art — not similar to the Western companies. We try to be individual."

He spoke mainly through an interpreter but at times interjected his own English replies as he discussed the concepts and methods behind this new work as well as his expansive ideas about choreography and dancers.

Dressed in black and looking slightly rumpled with his thick, curly gray hair and beard, the 68-year-old choreographer came across as confident and relaxed in a conversation in the offices of Ardani Artists, which produces Eifman Ballet tours. He and the 56 dancers of the St. Petersburg-based company were amid their longest North American tour — nine weeks that included their first-ever foray to Canada (Toronto and Montreal) and their debut at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

The tour concludes with four performances of Eifman's 2011 work "Rodin" at the Los Angeles Music Center on June 12 through 14.

"Up and Down," which had its premiere in January, features a structure and thematic material that follow his now-familiar approach, including gymnastically complex partnering and elaborate ensemble dances that alternate with the more introspective and private ones. But there is one striking difference: There are no familiar names from history or literature on his stage this time.

Rather, Eifman created his own set of unnamed characters — the Psychiatrist, the Patient, the Patient's Father, the Movie Star — for this cautionary tale in which a psychiatric clinic is a primary setting. Incest, the temptations of wealth and the lure of a decadent social whirl all figure in Eifman's two-act dance-drama, set to one of his typically eclectic assembled scores. Gershwin selections dominate, but there are also extensive selections by Schubert, as well as Schoenberg (two sections of "Verklarte Nacht," the score to which Antony Tudor set his very different psychologically probing 1942 masterpiece, "Pillar of Fire").

Eifman said he began with the idea of creating a ballet based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender Is the Night" but soon moved away from putting that novel's specific characters on the stage. "This was an initial idea," he acknowledged. "Because I'm very fond of psychoanalysis (Freud and Jung), my attention went away from this, and I concentrated on something different, related specifically to psychoanalysis.

"The main character, a psychiatrist, was very talented, and had a gift for curing people. But he betrayed his gift. His attention was drawn away from his profession. He was lured into a different world, and he lost his purpose. He was pre-destined to conduct his work as a doctor, and then he betrayed this destiny."

Eifman said he formulates the structure and characters of his ballets on his own for an extended period, then seeks out the appropriate music and only then is ready to go into the studio with his dancers. He has to decide "which characters I will live with for a year. I have to analyze all the images, all the appearances of the characters, and their development during the performance."

Once Eifman is in the studio — where he estimates it takes 31/2 to four months (often interrupted by the company's frequent tours) of intensive rehearsal with the dancers — "So many details and nuances have to be discussed with the dancers, and many questions have to be covered with them during the preparation of the work.

"The most interesting thing is to look inside a person and find such body language, language of movement, that can convey the ideas I want to convey about the psychology of a particular character. I want to broaden the boundaries of ballet art, to show that it is capable of describing more emotions, especially psychology and the soul of a character."

Eifman is unwavering in his belief in dance as theater and spectacle and not shy about expressing his disdain of most prevailing contemporary approaches to choreography. "There is one problem in the modern arts scene, that many younger choreographers are really creating some movements just to the music. For me, ballet theater is not just about movement and music. It's about something more; it's about theater."

Renae Williams Niles, the Music Center's vice president of programming, recalls that when the Eifman Ballet brought "Anna Karenina" to the Music Center in 2005, "Our audience was overwhelmed by this obviously distinct choreographic voice coming out of Russia. It has a great deal to do with the undeniable technique and skill of the dancers, and L.A. audiences also love the passion, the drama and Boris' very emotional storytelling."

She was eager to present the company, which is "often mentioned to me as a favorite by our subscribers," again, but it has taken until now for that to happen.

The Eifman Ballet is waiting for a home theater in St. Petersburg that has been promised for years yet beset by delays. "It has been my dream," Eifman said. "They promise me this autumn they will start construction." He hopes it might be ready for the 2017-18 season. Meanwhile, the company presents its St. Petersburg performances in the Alexandrinsky Theater — "a very beautiful old drama theater, where we are the resident dance company."

But one other promised building has been completed and is up and running. "We opened a big school two years ago, the Boris Eifman Dance Academy. It has 14 studios, gymnastics hall." He emphasizes that it is a separate institution from the company. Both receive government funding.

Eventually, the school could provide future Eifman Ballet dancers, but it is too early for that. So Eifman dispatches assistants who travel throughout the year around Russia and to other countries, seeking out potential company members. "They must be tall — and young and beautiful — and they must be not only dancers, they must be artists," Eifman asserts. "We don't wait for them to come to us. We go and find them, have a conversation. After that, they come and see — we cover the expenses."

He can recognize the type of dancer on his wavelength, and they can tell whether his distinctive, idiosyncratic approach to ballet is right for them. "If they have had enough of 'Swan Lake,' they come to me," he said with a laugh.

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