Eifman Ballet’s ‘Rodin’

Ballet is normally a very disciplined, structured, classical style of dance. The traditional inflated tutus and dainty runs on special shoes that give the illusion that the dancers are elevated on their toes, come to my mind; however the Eifman Ballet Company of St. Petersburg has completely shattered this image.

Not one baby-pink, satin pointe shoe was seen throughout the duration of the show, and the classical performance patterns of adagio, petit allegro and a grand finish of fouetté turns were almost nonexistent. Instead, the company moved in a contemporary, gestural style with emphasis on genius partner work.

Instead of rigid perfection, the Eifman Company displayed strong, passionate, emotional choreography in the magnificent Segerstrom Center, performing a genre of dance that their director Boris Eifman dubbed as “modern physchological ballet.”

The title of their performance was “Rodin,” and it told a tragic tale of two artists, the groundbreaking French sculptor Auguste Rodin and his lover and inspiration Camille Claudel. The program was very brief in explaining the history behind the ballet, describing the 15-year relationship the two had as “sensual and creative,” and the effects of their breakup on Claudel’s sanity, sending her to a mental asylum for 30 years “forgotten and left by everybody.”

The Eifman’s interpretation opens with tall ballerinas dressed in tattered, yellowish, baby-like clothing walking aimlessly, twitching and portraying specific quirks, and in the center, a woman dressed in grey is seated with clay in her hands. The psychological journey begins in an asylum, and from there, the ballet moves through the memories of love and conflict, interchanging with the broken, hopeless, post-breakup time period in both Rodin and Claudel’s lives.

One of the most breathtaking parts of the dances was the creation of sculptures. In one of the opening scenes, a turning table with a claylike lump sat upon it. The lump was made up of human bodies, and as the male dancer playing Rodin strenuously and persistently began to mold this “clay,” an amazing statue actually began to arise from the table through small, progressive-like movements of the five male dancers on the table. Rodin would begin with one’s head, and then move to one’s arm and then create fingers or situate one’s pose.

The choreography was genius as the angles of the “sculpting,” coupled with the turning of the table, created a magical scene. At its finish, the sculpted dancers — clothed very minimally — looked as if they were a genuine, realist genre of statue for which Rodin was known.

The costumes in “Rodin” varied often, as the “statues” and leads were minimally clothed, like Rodin with simple grays and browns. But there were also many ornate, almost whimsical costumes that were worn by the background company. This contrast created an interesting visual portrayal, emphasizing the broken humanity of the principal characters while making the remainder of the company at times a comic relief from the tense scenes unfolding.

Rodin was often taking a simple white dress off Claudel and a red one off another love interest Rose, often leaving these woman “nude” in tan-colored sports bras and spandex shorts. At first, this undressing was a sign of love, sex and a passionate relationship, but as the story unfolded, Claudel and Rose began to dance in a resisting incompliant manner.

Rodin’s character evolves from an adoring, thoughtful lover and sculptor to a seducer with an intense selfish desire for his own fulfillment and artistic success. These scenes were choreographed with complex lifts, stunts and intense partner work. At one of the most climatic points in the ballet, Rodin is torn and dances with both Rose and Claudel, and the battle that ensues is a glorious trio of technical dancing punctuated with thrashing movements.

While the principal dancers fulfilled the skeleton and heart of the tragic story, the chorus dancers gave it flesh and life. Both males and females emphasized their background characters in an exaggeration that outshone the leads at times. The females in their asylum roles and the male dancers in their statue roles were standouts, but when the company came together as a whole in the production numbers, they electrified the stage with athletic energy and stylized, committed character dancing.

The complex formation changes made the stage look as if it was swirling with color and vibrancy as the bodies moved in quick, sharp precision, but not always as one. I found the character dancing often made the arms not as clear, and in the brisk speed of the choreography, often one or two dancers were late or early just slightly on certain counts. It was not at all a glaring issue, but at times, it did take away from the alluring effect the larger dances had on the audience.

“Rodin” emphasizes the psychoanalysis of a story and the struggle of artist, artistry, success and love. At times, the movement was breathtaking and at other times, it was shocking and even made me squeamish. It was choreography and storytelling at its best, and I was astounded by the unique use of the human body to portray both artist and art.