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Review: Life and Art Mix in Eifman Ballet’s ‘Red Giselle’ at New York City Center

By Bethany Hopta, Contributing Writer, June 5, 2017

The Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg began a two week residency at the New York City Center on Friday, June 2, which continues through Sunday, June 11. Celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year, the company is offering two programs: the first weekend, an original ballet, Red Giselle; followed by a program entitled Tchaikovsky: The Mystery of Life and Death which incorporates scenes from four different ballets including Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Eugene Onegin, and The Queen of Spades.

I attended the opening performance of Red Giselle, which is billed as a tribute to Olga Spessivtseva, considered one of the greatest ballerinas of the twentieth century, with choreography by Boris Eifman. Spessivtseva’s Giselle is considered by many to have captured the role’s fragility and expressiveness, and while the ballet is not strictly biographical, it does illustrate some of the known issues that she faced in her life, including the Russian Revolution as well as mental illness.

Maria Abashova, Oleg Markov, and the company in Eifman Ballet’s ‘Red Giselle;’ photo: Yulia Kudryashova.

The ballet is a showcase for the Ballerina (Maria Abshova) as she moves through various scenes of her life. Opening in a rehearsal studio at the Mariinsky Theatre, the classic ballet rehearsal scene is portrayed, complete with practice barres and filled with female students dressed in classical white tulle skirts; strains of Tchaikovsky accompany their movements. They are corrected by the Teacher, Oleg Markov, dressed in a light blue suit and prodding the dancers with a baton to achieve ideal form. He admires the Ballerina’s perfection and they partner together, dancing a graceful pas de deux.

Maria Abashova and company in Eifman Ballet’s ‘Red Giselle;’ photo: Yulia Kudryashova.

The scene shifts to reveal an opulent curtain and stage; the Ballerina is reveling in applause for her performance and a Commissar (Sergey Volobuev), an official of the Communist party, takes notice of her. Dressed in a long, black coat, trousers and a vest, she is overwhelmed by him and their dancing reflects a magnetism, a raw desire, and change of choreography. Their movements are more modern; the Ballerina performs plies en pointe in second position with lifting sequences reflecting more organic, less contained and less proper movements. The Ballerina then enters a new world. The corps dancers wear shirts and pants resembling communist-style dress with their unison movements punctuated with a rhythmic score by Schnittke. The Ballerina wears a traditional short tutu with gold trim and appears initially intimidated by the scene, but then begins to dance with the corps. Eventually tiring of the chaos and the affair with the Commissar, she returns to the ballet class and the Teacher. However, the power has shifted. The Teacher’s studio is invaded by the Communist party and he is placed in stockades (a clever and ironic use of the practice barre). Conformity is the rule and the arts suffer. Finally, the Ballerina is allowed to leave Russia with the Act concluding with a powerful image of dancers, clad in traveling clothes, slowly ascending a ramp, as if to board a ship.

Act Two opens to reveal a male choreographer dancing in front of mirrors with the company joining him onstage. With the dancers clad in fitted shirts and pants in pastel colors, there is a relaxed fluidity in their movement. The Ballerina joins the group in her formal white tutu and pointe shoes and begins partnering with the choreographer. This time, although there is beauty and grace in their movements, her love for him is not returned; he has a male companion. Seemingly devastating to the Ballerina, she tries to immerse herself in the Parisian scene, illustrated by a colorful, jazzy dance by the corps. The bright jewel-tone colored costumes and energetic, punchy choreography portray a gaiety that she attempts to embrace, but is distracted by images of the Commissar. While seeming distraught, unfocused and paranoid, the scene shifts to a production of Giselle, with the Ballerina playing her signature role; life imitates art as she collapses with a broken spirit and unrequited love. Mirrors are moved around the stage and illustrate unease and visual manipulation. The ballet ends with the Ballerina trapped inside a dome with mirrors, representing the mental illness and breakdowns that plagued Spessivtseva.

Maria Abashova in Eifman Ballet’s ‘Red Giselle;’ photo: Yulia Kudryashova.

Staging and costumes by Vyacheslav Okunev create all of the different worlds throughout the course of the piece, with the audience being transported from Russia to Paris through the design details absorbing the culture and changing dynamics onstage. The scenes shift easily with the use of scrims and the effective lighting design by Boris Eifman. The precision and grace of the company was fully showcased in this work, and New York audiences are fortunate to have the opportunity to experience this celebrated Russian company. Make plans to attend one of the remaining performances of the Eifman Ballet at New York City Center.


Red Giselle, presented by the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg at New York City Center on June 2-4, 2017.  Choreography by Boris Eifman; music by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Alfred Schnittke, Georges Bizet. Set and costume design by Vyacheslav Okunev; lighting design by Boris Eifman. Dancers: Ballerina: Maria Abashova; Commissar (an official of the Communist party): Sergey Volobuev; Teacher: Oleg Markov; Partner: Oleg Gabyshev; Friend: Dmitry Fisher. Corps de ballet: Lyubov Andreyeva, Lilia Lishchuk, Natalia Povoroznyuk, Dmitry Krylov, Igor Subbotin, Alina Fisher, Leonid Leontiev, Polina Petrova, Igor Polyakov, Angela Prokhorova, Daria Reznik, Dmitry Savinov, Alexander Solovey, Daria Bochkova, Jaroslavna Brykova, Marianna Chebykina, Alina Dianova, Maria Dovicheva, Yana Gordienko, Evgeniya Harutyunyan , Alexandra Kuzmich, Anna Ostapenko, Polina Pavlenko, Alina Petrovskaya, Natalia Poznyakova, Polina Ryasnaya, Alexandra Smolentseva, Irina Spiridonova, Alina Svintinskaya, Evgeniya Volobueva, Margarita Yakovleva, Anastasia Zaberezhnaya, Ivan Andreyev, Alexey Boyarinov, Vasil Dautov, Kirill Efremov, Alexander Ivanov, Dmitry Lunev, Maksim Midyanka, Roman Nesterov, Artur Petrov, Daniel Rubin, Konstanin Savchenko, Daniil Starkov, Bogdan Vovkanich, Vikenty Yascovets.


Cover: Maria Abashova and the company in Eifman Ballet’s ‘Red Giselle;’ photo: Yulia Kudryashova.


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