When Russian choreographer Boris Eifman looked at the works of famous 1920s American literature, he was enchanted by the decade's opulence and the nation's developing entertainment industry. The era's emergence of social, artistic and cultural activity, he said, drew people to listen to the radio and become influenced by jazz music.
"The First World War was over and it was a time when everyone began to enjoy their lives and find joy in every moment," Eifman said through a translator. "It was such a special time in fashion, music and theater — very colorful — but some tragic stories happened."
For his new ballet, "Up and Down," which is making its West Coast premiere at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts from Friday through Sunday, Eifman delved into Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theory with a love story set in the decadent 1920s.
Famous for his unique story ballets, Eifman's newest work is set to the music of Alban Berg, Franz Schubert and George Gershwin. The plot follows a young psychiatrist slowly driven to madness after being absorbed in a romantic relationship fueled by consumerism and excess. His girlfriend struggles to overcome mental illness, and the man ends up betraying his soul and his talent.
Eifman said the production is "an infusion of the Roaring Twenties, where people are enjoying their lives, attending luxurious parties, and then there's another layer of life as a real tragedy. It's the most special part."
Eifman, 68, named by the Los Angeles Times as "virtually the only [narrative choreographer] in touch with the 21st century," is well regarded for his stories depicting complex, psychologically deep characters. Similar themes have been presented at the center, including his "Don Quixote," "Rodin" and the critically acclaimed "A Russian Hamlet."
The Siberian-born Eifman is a prolific force. At age 30, he founded the Leningrad New Ballet, which later became known as the St. Petersburg Eifman Ballet. He has done more than 50 ballet performances and is a four-time recipient of the Golden Soffit, the highest theater award of St. Petersburg.
He also received Russia's Golden Mask Award for his works and overall lifetime achievement. The award is given to productions in all genres of theater art and presents the most significant performances from all over the country.
Judy Morr, the Segerstrom Center's executive vice president and the force behind the venue's dance offerings each season, remembered when she first saw Eifman's work.
"I thought, 'Wow, I feel so touched by this and I feel the excitement in the chorography,'" Morr said. "I knew then an audience would feel the same way, because if it affects one person, it will affect another.
"He does choreography with the most beautiful dancers and it evokes such passion and emotion. Boris is a never-ending source of choreography. Part of our mission is to introduce audiences to new works, and he is a fountain of new work. Everything he does is always new and fresh."
"Up and Down," which had its premiere in January, marks Eifman's eighth visit to Segerstrom Center. The Eifman Ballet is in the process of building a second ballet institution in St. Petersburg, and the Boris Eifman Dance Academy began its first academic year in 2013.
Eifman's new work features a set with glitzy backdrops and few props. The costumes, designed by Olga Shaishmelashvili, showcase the decade in which fashion entered the modern era. The ballet's dramatic dances are depicted by soloists Maria Abashova, the psychiatrist's love interest, and Oleg Gabyshev as the psychiatrist. Both dancers have received the coveted Golden Mask.
Eifman said ballet enthusiasts should expect to watch the highest artistic level of achievements of contemporary Russian ballet. Dancers, who are winners of international ballet contests and holders of the Golden Mask and Golden Soffit awards will implement his ideas.
"The most attractive part of the new production is that the choreography is led by talented dancers under beautiful lighting and terrific sets all in a spectacular manner," Eifman said. "It's ravishing."
IF YOU GO
What: Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg: "Up and Down"
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; and 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Cost: Tickets start at $29
Information: (714) 556-2787, scfta.org