The Eifman Ballet is the dance equivalent of a guilty pleasure. Boris Eifman’s over-the-top brand of “psychological ballet” has entertained and horrified audiences and critics in equal measure for three decades, and every new production comes with the gleeful assurance of more contorted limbs and Russian-flavoured angst.
Works based on literary or historical figures are the bread and butter of the company, and Eifman’s latest victims are French sculptors Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel. Their complex relationship and Claudel’s descent into madness certainly provide enough fodder for many a crazed pas de deux, and for the most part, Rodin is a solid addition to the Eifman repertoire.
The production starts and ends in the asylum where Claudel would spend the last 30 years of her life, an excuse for a corps of wide-eyed madwomen to channel the kind of sexual hysteria the 19th century loved to fear. We then follow Claudel, Rodin and his lifelong companion Rose Beuret through a series of flashbacks, which often stray into dubious territory (cancan; a tango fling with a stranger for Claudel). As always, the St Petersburg choreographer takes every extreme in the Russian ballet book – hyperextension, impossibly elongated physique – and inflects it with idiosyncratic modern dance. Steps are stretched and squeezed for every last ounce of melodramatic effect; what you see is movement in caps lock – camp and implausible yet irrationally rousing.
What keeps the ballet on track is the parallel between Rodin’s art and the sculptural beauty of the company’s dancers. Eifman, who claims to be the first choreographer to have founded an independent dance company in Russia (in 1977), is not a man of nuances or transitions, but he can summon striking shapes and does so in a series of human sculptures inspired by works by Rodin or Claudel. “The Gates of Hell”, reimagined with near-naked dancers reaching out of an iron structure, comes alive with sensuality.
Eifman’s soloists are fully committed to the frenzy of movement. Lyubov Andreyeva portrays Camille Claudel with unabashed intensity, her endless, finely drawn limbs unfailingly eloquent; she is aptly partnered through acrobatic pas de deux by Oleg Gabyshev, a fine presence as Rodin. Alongside them, Nina Zmievets, a company star, lends weight and simplicity to the role of Rose.
What Eifman also does in Rodin is zoom in on a Pygmalion complex that closely mirrors ballet’s. Rodin is in charge throughout as Claudel and Rose tie themselves into knots around him and, despite her talent as a sculptor, Claudel is manipulated into the position of muse and assistant to him. The climax of the scene where they fall for each other sees Rodin physically mould her into his “Crouching Woman”. It’s a skilful visual realisation of an ambivalent relationship, and not without irony in a ballet world where male choreographers are still the dominant creative voice and women their clay.