Boris Eifman has run his own ballet company since 1977 and is much feted in his homeland. In 2009 the government of St Petersburg elected to build the Dance Academy of Boris Eifman, whose curriculum will probably not be overly exigent since, on the evidence of this Anna Karenina, the company knows only about five steps.
Anna, danced with admirable intensity by the long-limbed Nina Zmievets, was rarely off the stage in almost two hours, but I can scarcely recall her doing anything except writhe in either anguish or desire, and occasionally touch the crown of her head with the tip of a pointe shoe.
The Eifman Ballet vision seems to be less about dance, more about a theatrical experience that some people find extremely powerful and others wholly reject. Typically, Eifman takes a masterpiece of Russian literature – Anna Karenina, Eugene Onegin, The Seagull – and strips it down to its “essence” (the Karenina ballet is basically a love triangle, with Vronsky danced by an efficient Oleg Gabyshev and Karenin by a charismatic Oleg Markov). This essence is then rendered in physical terms, with some balletic-cum-gymnastic moves and a great deal of yearning and grappling. It might be described, perhaps, as the choreographic equivalent of what Dame Joan Sutherland once referred to as her onstage “GPE” face: General Pained Expression.
That said, and although Eifman seems limited and almost charmingly old-fashioned in many respects – not least when Anna appears in a nude body stocking to show that she has been reduced to a state of nothingness – the man undoubtedly has a sense of theatre. This production exerts a relentless grip, and at times one can see why the company is so adored in some quarters (it should be said that the Londongrad section of the audience rose to its feet when Eifman took his curtain call).
The pas de deux may be repetitive, but the use of the corps de ballet is often inspired. Dancing at full pelt to the extracts of taped Tchaikovsky that constitute the score, they become horses for the scene in which Anna meets Vronsky at a race meeting, and finally the train before which she throws herself. They also generate a truly excellent sequence, a ball scene in which they turn on Anna like a group of high society Furies.
So although one cannot help wishing for less expressionism and more ballet, less soul-baring and more restraint – as, for example, in the touching little moments between Anna and her son – the production leaves one applauding the Eifman company for its passionate integrity, and Eifman himself for a gift for showmanship.