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#16 - JRL 7059
The Independent (UK)
February 11, 2003
Theatre: Total theatre, Russian style
A major force in Russian ballet swept back into London with his company last night. Boris Eifman talks to NADINE MEISNER

"It's not choreography, it's pornography," the Soviet censors would tell Boris Eifman. "Try again." And so he would grovel, promising to put things right. One month later, facing the censors again, he would thank them for their criticisms and show them his corrected work. "Oh, yes," they would say, "it's quite different."

The catch was, he hadn't changed a thing. Like others trying to push artistic frontiers, he had developed the low cunning to play a game of diplomatic sham. Some of the censors themselves, perhaps, knew exactly what they doing and joined in the game, their role an elaborate pretence of fulfilling official duty. It was surreal behaviour for surreal times, where "nothing was true", as Eifman says with a fatalistic shrug.

If everyone was trying to navigate the system, things were just that bit harder for Eifman, a Jew as well as a dissident. But that hasn't prevented him from becoming the best-known of Russia's modern choreographers. Trained in the choreography faculty of the Leningrad Conservatory, he has spent his career trying to find a language that will enlarge and extend classical ballet. In 1977, he founded his company, and the authorities tried to close it down, but they couldn't because it was too popular. He used music by Pink Floyd and chose controversial themes, such as a story about a soldier ruined by his Red Army experiences. Huge, young crowds came, excited by this stirring of dissent in the heart of Soviet greyness. He was refused subsidy, but was successful enough to run his company without it. He managed, he says, to solve that difficult problem of satisfying both audience and artistic integrity.

The authorities tried to get rid of him. "Why don't you go abroad, go to Israel, and do your ballets there?" they would say. But he had no intention of emigrating. Despite what the bureaucrats seemed to think, he was not setting out to destroy tradition. "On the contrary," he says, "I love Russian tradition and culture. I trained in St Petersburg, where Russian ballet is in people's blood. That's the reason I never wanted to emigrate. But I saw that Russian ballet contained huge potential for development."

I had expected some soulful egocentric, issuing inflated, self-important statements about his artistic destiny; instead, I found a cuddly 56-year- old with a grizzly beard and twinkling eyes. Eifman has a jovial manner, but underneath must run an engine of bloody-minded determination and relentless stamina. A dose of optimism must also be in the mix, although he sees it in more spiritual terms, as faith in God. Perhaps that comes of being born in an underground bunker in Siberia, where his father had been sent to build tanks. "All my life," Eifman says, one hand sketching a yearning line upward, "I've been trying to come out from under the earth to reach God."

That faith, and the hard school of commercial self-reliance, equipped him to survive the free market of new Russia while his previously subsidised comrades collapsed all around him. In 1988, his company began extensive tours abroad.

The company now has a new name - Eifman Ballet Theatre - and a new style. "It is", he says, "a completely new direction. We now have grand, full-length ballets that develop the tradition of Russian ballet on the one hand but, on the other, show new possibilities for a new age." These new possibilities have the ring of a Ken Russell phantasmagoria. "My art is total theatre, proposing a synthesis of different forms. Of course, the choreography is the leading element, but the acting, lighting and sets are also important. I'm not afraid of theatrical effects, because a show should amaze an audience, and through all this I'm trying to express my ideas and emotions."

What prompted the transformation? "The new economical and political system in Russia gave new opportunities. I have to use the opportunities that are available now, especially the creative freedom. So, after perestroika, I began to change the style and technology of what I showed."

With St Petersburg celebrating its 300th anniversary this year, it's fitting that he should bring two biographical ballets about historical figures linked with the city. Tchaikovsky, created in 1993 and a big hit in New York, evokes the tormenting opposed impulses in the composer's mind. Red Giselle (1997) equates the tragedy of Olga Spessivtseva, the extraordinary ballerina of revolutionary St Petersburg who sank into madness, with her greatest role, Giselle. "I'm teaching dance with no boundaries," Eifman asserts. At the same time, it is quintessentially Russian. "Every movement is full of soul, and that is the definition of the Russian style. Anyone can jump or stretch a leg, but only Russian dancers can give it meaning."

At Sadler's Wells Theatre, London EC1 (020-7863 8000) to Saturday

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