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Celebrating Balanchine by Channeling His Antithesis

On June 18, Russian choreographer Boris Eifman will premiere his first ballet for the venerable New York City Ballet as part of a program to celebrate what would have been George Balanchine’s 100th birthday. At least in one respect, the match might seem to make sense: Eifman’s own company, the Eifman ballet, is based in Balanchine’s native city of St. Petersburg. But at the home of the late Balanchine’s neoclassical style, dance is distilled to its essence, and in many ways Eifman — whose ballets gravitate toward over-the-top histrionics, impassioned gesturing, unapologetic athleticism and storytelling propelled by patchwork musical collages — represents the antithesis of Balanchine’s aesthetic.

If his engagement as guest choreographer for this event seems unlikely, his path to success has, in some ways, been even more unusual. During World War II, Eifman’s Ukrainian Jewish parents were sent by the communists to work at a tank factory in Siberia (all their remaining Ukrainian relatives were murdered by the Germans). Eifman, living in Siberia with his family in an underground bunker, studied dance lessons at age 6. By 13, he had already planned a career in choreography — much to his parents’ disapproval. “A musician in a Russian Jewish family, it’s normal, but a dancer is abnormal,” Eifman once said in an interview.

Eifman made his way to the choreography department at the Leningrad Conservatory; after graduation, he formed his own troupe, and he immediately displayed his brash, soulful choreography, fueled by unorthodox themes and music like Pink Floyd. Antisemitic harassment by communist party officials followed suit and when foreign critics began to recognize the company’s public appeal, the KGB interrogated the choreographer and pressed him to immigrate to Israel.

“Every Jew who lived in the Soviet Union was feeling the discrimination to this or that extent,” said Eifman in an interview with the Forward. “They saw in me a potential dissident and because of this I was always ‘a stranger’ for the party functionaries. Plus there was the ineradicable antisemitism in everyday life. My theater with its new ideas irritated the authorities, and I had been provoked to leave the USSR. But I wanted to save my theater, I wanted to live and create in St. Petersburg.”

“My desire proved to be more powerful than their hatred,” added Eifman, who, unlike other Russian artists, never changed his Jewish surname.

Today, apart from the traditional Russian ballet troupes, the Bolshoi Ballet and the Kirov Ballet, the Eifman Ballet is the most successful Russian ballet company in the world. His remarkable dancers have resurrected the blood-and-guts style of Soviet dancers of a previous generation, reminiscent of artists like the great Jewish ballerina Maya Plisetskaya (who was also stigmatized for her faith). Whenever the Eifman Ballet performs at New York’s City Center, it is one of the few dance companies to guarantee sold-out performances.

In making the leap from Russian passion to New York City Ballet’s cool, streamlined, plotless approach, Eifman has had to keep his perspective intact. “I am deeply convinced that there is no such thing as the abstraction of dance,” he said. “There is only the degree to which the dance submits either to music or to drama.”

Eifman’s commissioned work, titled “Musagete,” loosely incorporates aspects of Balanchine’s life into the narrative ballet. Performed in one act with 25 dancers, it utilizes the music of Bach and Tchaikovsky, two composers who served as inspirations for Balanchine’s genius. Jean-Pierre Frohlich, the company rehearsal director for the ballet, called the piece, “an homage to Balanchine’s life and achievements.”

Wendy Whelan, a principal ballerina of New York City Ballet, portrays Balanchine’s cat, whose elastic jumps, preening stretches and supple landings often inspired Balanchine’s chic approach to dancing. “Eifman’s style took some getting used to,” said Whelan in an interview with the Forward. “But now that we have rehearsed it, we’re all settling into it.”

Like Balanchine, musicality is paramount to Eifman. In stating his objectives, Eifman has often repeated Balanchine’s directive, “See the music, hear the dance.” And physical speed as a tool for illustrating the rush of musical passages is a common denominator for both choreographers. “At the root of Balanchine’s choreographic thinking — as well as mine — there lies the principle of musical hegemony. Music is the only source of choreographic ideas,” said Eifman.

While “Musagete” does not express any Jewish themes per se, Eifman has certainly explored them in the past. When Perestroika swept Russia in 1989, Eifman promptly grabbed the opportunity to visit Israel. From a hill in Jerusalem, he viewed places of worship — Jewish, Christian and Muslim. That vista spurred him to create a ballet, “My Jerusalem,” which featured three dancers in solos representing the three religions, set to ethnic and sacred music, as well as Mozart and Rachmaninoff. “‘My Jerusalem’ is a ballet with a utopia for three religions and three different ways to the one God, about people’s appreciation of what historically unites them and not of the religious dissension,” he said. “I wish very much that we could perform it in the Middle East. Never before has a ballet come so near to political actuality. Its experience has revealed new possibilities of our art, which has no language barrier and moves millions of people.”

Eifman has always viewed his position as an outsider as one of strength, whether as a Siberian, a Jew or an artist. “Every artist harbors in himself the memory of his ancestors, and I am not an exception — hence the tragic conception of my art, the striving for philosophical comprehension of life, and sincere religiousness. But my privilege is in the combination of my Jewish soul, my ineradicable desire to know the Truth, and the great Russian culture.”

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