By Ryan Wallace
When it comes to contemporary ballet, often patrons of the arts find themselves immersed in a narrative far outside the norm of the classics. Not filled with the fantasy and fairy-tales of traditional ballet, contemporary ballet much like a novel depends heavily on the creation of real characters. And few companies can quite compare to the characters and the narrative created by Boris Eifman and the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg, who time and time again manage to evoke a visceral experience for the dancers and audience alike.
In their newest production “Up and Down”, which premiered last weekend at the Costa Mesa Segerstrom Center for the Arts, the Eifman Ballet creates a dynamic tale of mental health and the power of the mind, set amidst the 1920’s jazz era of the United States. Inspired by the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel Tender is the Night, “Up and Down” tells the story of a burgeoning psychiatrist who faces love and irony, as he falls in love with a patient he’s supposed to be treating. As he brings his patient one step further to finding herself and her place in this world, the psychiatrist slowly loses his own identity, descending further into madness.
“Eifman takes the plot, he takes the story, he takes the emotional spectacle and those charge the piece“ dance expert with the OC Performing Arts Center, Dr. Dianne Howe says. “He’s not looking for an intellectual reaction, but rather a gut-level reaction that’s really emotional.”
And it’s this emotional reaction that Eifman creates best. In recent years, Eifman’s influences have taken darker themes than most ballet companies would dare to work with, but when Eifman creates a ballet and characters that he must deal with for years at a time, he takes care to detail the intricacies of each one. And he’s not alone in the process—his dancers are caretakers that bring these unique spirits to life on stage. To create something so frail as these characters requires an insane intimacy, knowing what creates the human psyche, and a technical ability that is refined enough to pull it off.
There’s a stark contrast between the sterility of the white walls of the asylum, and the vibrant jazz culture just beyond its doors. Within the story, it’s the collage of music that drives the characters and the ever-changing landscape around them, but each scene creates an emotion of its own. In the context of the asylum, they create organized chaos amongst the corps de ballet.
Amongst the highlights of this innovative ballet are the theatrics and the novel allusions that American audiences will come to adore. The emotional portrayal by the leads, Sergey Volobuev and Maria Abashova, is almost entirely written across their faces and is a powerful addition to the ballet. The patient’s constant struggles create a need for the reinforcement of the psychiatrist’s presence, and Volobuev and Abashova create an intimacy that is felt by the audience and one that is clearly present on the stage. As ballet dancers they invoke a place within their minds, to add an emotional depth to the piece that is unrivaled by other contemporary works.
Aside from the complex storyline portrayed in the ballet, which albeit is a difficult task at hand, the collage of musical influences and the stylistic choices for each dance are unique to Eifman’s creation. And though the ballet is nearly serious at all points in time, it’s almost funny to see dances from the 1920’s in the context of classical music, not jazz, as the Russians take a famous era in the U.S. and create a character dance unlike anything that you’ve seen before.
Creating a world in and of its own, where madness is the norm and the human psyche is pushed to entirely new limits, the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg adds a new depth to contemporary ballet. Twisting classic technique into something entirely difficult in its ingenuity, “Up and Down” is a visceral experience for audiences and the dance company alike. Definitely a must watch!