Choreographer Boris Eifman’s febrile fantasias on the hallowed landmarks of Russian culture have rarely seemed as irresistibly wrong-headed (and as utterly convinced of their importance) as his new romp through Chekhov’s 1896 tragicomedy. How, one wondered, could the author’s subtle ironies and poignant self-dramatisations be accommodated within a movement style in which raw passion flares unremittingly?

Well, they can’t. But you watch compulsively as two distinctive sensibilities collide head-on. The plot now transpires in an urban ballet studio, rather than the Russian provinces. Eifman has reduced Chekhov’s microcosm of society to four characters, each of whom desperately desires something from the others. Arkadina is a famous ballerina, her son, Treplev, has become an avant-garde choreographer, Nina (renamed Zarechnaya) is an aspiring Swan Queen, Trigorin rules the roost as the dancemaker of the moment.

They deceive and torture themselves for two hours, while prerecorded chunks of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin accompany every display of rampant emotionalism. Eifman has proved masterly in wedding extreme technique to heightened states of anguish, often at the expense of narrative coherence. His Treplev, who rises from a crib-like cage, to which he reverts at the end, exemplifies infantile longing in his fetal postures and flailing forays. Fortunately, Eifman exhibits a sense of humour here. Treplev’s radical terpsichorean concoctions, a Martha Graham parody in stretch fabric and a gaggle of gesticulating robots with head scarves, mercifully leaven the prevailing hysteria; little wonder Arkadina evinces contempt for it. A couple of overly manicured hip-hop ensembles send the piece reeling into the grotesque.

Nevertheless, the performance by the 46-member, St Petersburg- based company summons admiration for its awesome commitment to pushing the classical vocabulary to the edge. In the world premiere cast, Dmitri Fisher imbued Treplev with the burning integrity of a doomed artist. Nina Zmievets invested Arkadina with the wonted hauteur and an extension of legendary sweep. Maria Abashova’s Zarechnaya floated a lyric line of major proportions, while Yuri Smelakov’s smooth, arrogant Trigorin displayed uncommon partnering skills. Zinovy Margolin’s ballet studio and curving ceiling masterfully suggest the oppressive isolation of the dance world.
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