REVIEW: Tchaikovsky | Capitol Theatre, Sydney
Even the tickets for Tchaikovsky, the second and final of two Eifman ballets currently touring Australia, not only announces the name of the ballet, but notes “choreography by Boris Eifman”. As if his name on the company isn’t explicit enough. Methinks Boris is as much self-aggrandising impresario as choreo, but you probably need that, even now, to really make it in Russia. So, I s’pose what I’m really intimating is he’s the P.T.Barnum of ballet.
Just because the ringmaster’s a marketing genius doesn’t mean what he’s marketing is, necessarily, any the lesser. Witness last week’s Anna Karenina. Regrettably though, I didn’t feel the same way about Eifman’s take on Tchaikovsky. Not even close. Whereas, even in conceding a lack of any kind of subtlety, I found Karenina thrilling, I found Tchaikovsky a cynical exercise, thin on ideas (choreographic or otherwise), sincerity, heart and soul.
Indeed, much of the choreography is downright ugly, contorted; gymnastic, without being especially balletic. On the whole, it probably owes more to Bob Fosse than Balanchine. Moreover, while Karenina‘s narrative was transparent, it’s much harder to discern what’s really going on here. And, notwithstanding PIT’s unassailable status as a composer, I’m not even sure the story of his life, or death, is that interesting.
As with Karenina, Eifman has neatly compressed Tchaikovsky into two hours, two acts and one intermission. Even this begins to seem like something of an entertainment formula, just as, after firsthand exposure to only two productions, Eifman trademarks begin to emerge. It’s (more than) a little disenchanting. It begins to appear he trots out a standard range of colours; not quite as restrictive as with Henry Ford’s Model T, but too limited (and limiting) nonetheless. For example, one more example of the ‘spider’ stance would have really cloyed.
But let’s balance the books a little. One does have Tchaikovsky’s music to fall back on, which is always an enriching aural and emotional experience. Slava Okunev’s costumes are probably the one element of this work that can make a liar of me: the graduations of his palette, alone, defined subtle and also exhibited almost sublime complementarity. His sets, however, are a little also-ran, at best. Both touring set designers seem to have a penchant for brass beds, as props. And the card-table coffin is hardly inspired.
Some of the company didn’t look nearly as confident or surefooted as with Karenina; in fact, uncertainty seemed to pervade and there was even an unfortunate (thankfully, not injurious) fall. But, all things considered, the dancers (and especially soloists) excelled, even if some of their moves, designed to be dramatic, came off as near-comical.
The curtain rises on Tchaikovsky (one presumes) convulsing on his deathbed. We first see him through another, sheer, scalloped, black, final curtain. From this point on, we see his life flash before our eyes: torments; regrets; glimpses of happiness; small mercies. It could be your life. Or mine. Just add tragedy. Of course, one can barely overestimate his importance and influence; not only in Russia, but the west. He was, after all, the first Russian composer to make his mark on the international stage and, in fact, gave the first-ever concert at a brand spanking Carnegie Hall in 1891.
One of his greatest challenges was to reconcile the Russian school, if you will, in which he was steeped, with the western, in which he was trained. Ideas about melody, harmony and more are as chalk and cheese, between the two modalities. This meant reconciling himself to be marginalised by other prominent Russian composers. This might’ve been enough of a cross for any man to bear, but Tchaikovsky was afflicted with much more besides. His mother died prematurely. His marriage was a short-lived disaster. And I do mean short-lived: nine weeks. (Nine-and-a-half might’ve made a profound difference.) He was, quite probably, gay, or bisexual, but unable to admit it. He suffered from depression. In despair, he tried suicide. (There’s speculation he died at his own hand, rather than from cholera, as is typically reported.) He had a breakdown. In short, he had a pathetic life, limping from crisis to crisis. And a short one: he was dead at 53. That he produced such a cohesive and voluminous body of superlative work is little short of superhuman, given the circumstances.
In the ballet, much is made of his alter ego, his so-called double, his Mr Hyde. He’s in more-or-less continuous conversation, debate and conflict with such. His other seems to represent, to a certain extent, his muse; but he is slave to it, rather than enslaver. It bids and tempts him to go in self-destructive directions an circles. Intermittently, his wife haunts him. On top of this, there are even less material supernatural influences. Who is that wicked witch-like character bathed in deep purple, for instance? If you know your popular mythology, you might recognise her as Carabosse, a nefarious fairy godmother who made her debut in Sleeping Beauty. This is a circular reference, since it was a ballet of the same name that proved Tchaikovsky’s first real success in that realm (Swan Lake wasn’t well-received). But wait, no, this is his famous patroness, the Baroness Von Meck. Does she have to be portrayed as such a fugly figure?
Numerous other characters, of the imagination, folklore and real life, appear and disappear. Was that Prince Siegfried, or an object of the love that dare not speak its name, courted unashamedly by his other? Probably both. It was desperately hard to tell. His swans seem to be emblematic of his salvation, which is fleeting, intermittent and elusive. His young wife seems to lose her mind, becoming a kind of Lady Macbeth. Eifman can’t resist indulging his apparent passion for a more-or-less explicitly sexual, torrid bedroom scene, which seems quite extraneous, in most respects to the story. Yet it proves one of the more compelling scenes.
Karenina was full-on, as we Aussies might say, but Tchaikovsky, even as a cliched portrait of a tortured genius, is absurdly and unrelentingly histrionic. I know bugger-all about the truth of Tchaikovsky’s life, but it’s hard to imagine it was quite so unremittingly God-awful. Sure, I assume, as with just about every major figure in history, his fate was sealed; that he was of weak constitution, syphilitic and wracked by demons. But he must have had the odd picnic, surely! Yet Eifman’s bio-ballet paints a picture of a first-class martyr, crucified, vilified, reviled and excommunicated. And that’s just by his doppelgänger.
It is, of course, sad the composer was unable to live according to his wishes, sexually and otherwise. Repression, inflicted by self, social mores, or for other reasons, is a vile cross to bear. Perhaps this should be the focus of Eifman’s study of Tchaikovsky. Instead, it reads like The Daily Telegraph‘s, or the Herald Sun‘s version of events.
While the athleticism of the dancers again stole one’s breath away, the clunky, largely unattractive choreography detracted, so it’s difficult to honour soloists, any more than the creator, on this occasion. It’s stunning that two ballets, from the same company, in the span of just a week, can have such polarising effects.
The details: Tchaikovsky played the Capitol Theatre in Sydney from August 22-26. The show moves to Melbourne’s Regent Theatre on August 29 — tickets via Ticketmaster.