By linking the turbulent life of Tchaikovsky to central actions and images in the composer’s theater works, Russian choreographer Boris Eifman created a stream-of-consciousness narrative of great richness and daring.
At the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Saturday, “Tchaikovsky: The Mystery of Life and Death” showcased the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg not only in intense biographical sequences but elaborate choreographic fantasies drawn from “The Nutcracker,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Swan Lake” and his opera “The Queen of Spades.”
In a delirium on his deathbed, Eifman’s tormented hero found himself manipulated by Drosselmeyer, bedeviled by Carabosse, and fatally tempted by a gleaming fantasy-prince that he had awakened with a kiss. A corps of swans and playing cards also haunted him, with Eifman many times impressively juxtaposing classical formality and anti-classical emotionalism.
Choreographed in 1993, two years before Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake” and four years before homosexuality became decriminalized in Russia, this two-act dance drama ultimately staked its credibility and impact (like Bourne’s work) on the male duet: the possibilities for expressive and technical breakthroughs when men dance together.
Many of these duets brilliantly physicalized the conflicts between Tchaikovsky’s homosexual desires and his repressive public persona, with a character named Tchaikovsky’s Double just as doomed as Tchaikovsky himself but far more willful.
The two leading women’s roles also contrasted carnal indulgence (Tchaikovsky’s wife) and clenched repression (Tchaikovsky’s patron), while the corps dancing reflected comparable extremes.
In Eifman’s world, you’re equally destroyed by yielding to temptation and not yielding to it -- but, of course, yielding makes for more passionate dance-theater. So when the men started ripping off their shirts to the Capriccio Italien, and that enticing prince began responding to the attentions of Tchaikovsky’s Double, the extraordinary ingenuity of the corps dancing throughout the work reached a phenomenal fusion of sexual heat and bold movement design.
Although the taped score incorporated portions of other works, Tchaikovsky’s fifth and sixth symphonies formed the core of the ballet’s accompaniment. And, indeed, you might conclude that “Tchaikovsky” belongs to the genre of storytelling symphonic works pioneered by Leonide Massine, a choreographer who also found inspiration in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth. It is an exciting, accessible genre, one with as many potential pitfalls and excesses as choreographic abstraction but Russian to its very soul and a stunning vehicle for 31 Eifman Ballet virtuosos.
Two sets of principals danced splendidly on Saturday, with Yuri Ananyan making a sweeter, more sympathetic Tchaikovsky in his debut in the role at the matinee than the more unhinged, scarier Albert Galichanin at night.
Similarly, in the afternoon Constantin Matulevsky seemed to be looking for love as Tchaikovsky’s Double while Alexey Turko clearly was cruising for sex in the evening. All these dancers handled the work’s fearsome partnering challenges effortlessly, with Turko spectacularly buoyant in many of the duets.
As Tchaikovsky’s insatiable wife, Nina Zmievets managed to be winsome even when whorish or demented, but the wealth of expressive and choreographic detail that Natalia Povorozniuk brought to the role on Saturday night made her character loom larger in the scheme of things.
Both Maria Abashova and Vera Arbuzova pined with deliberately forced dignity as Tchaikovsky’s devoted patron, but Arbuzova alone exploded into terrifying ferocity when the character morphed in Tchaikovsky’s mind into Carabosse and the Queen of Spades.
Igor Siadzko, Sergei Zimin and Oxana Tverdokhlebova danced faultlessly in subsidiary roles. Slava Okunev contributed the resourceful, atmospheric set designs and varied costumes.