Dance Matters

April 27, 2009

Eifman’s New Onegin

An Updated Classic Comes to the U.S.

The Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg returns to America this spring after a two-year absence, performing Boris Eifman’s new two-act Onegin, several months after its world premiere in his home city. It is inspired by Alexander Pushkin’s 1830s novel in verse, Eugene Onegin. Typically, Eifman is using a combination of old music and new, in this case composed by Tchaikovsky and the young violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky.


Pushkin’s anti-hero Onegin is one of the quintessential personifications of the alienated Russian, the “superfluous man” estranged from societal norms of moral behavior. After flirting with the fiancée of his best friend—out of perversity more than anything else—he is challenged to a duel and fatally wounds his friend. Onegin rejects Tatiana, the innocent young woman who loves him, only to live to bitterly regret his decision.


Eifman founded his company in then-Leningrad in 1977, when he too was something of an alienated man in Soviet society, by virtue of being Jewish and a rebel pushing the envelope in his choreography. Eifman’s was one of the very first Russian dance companies dedicated to performing the work of one choreographer. The state provided some funding for his company as a way of bringing new audiences to ballet. Eifman’s appeal to youth needed to be made, however, while he walked the fine line dictated by the cultural and political realities of that time.


Eifman has always used classically trained dancers, but one of the first stars of the company was, at least in theory, one of the most unlikely: ex-Kirov prima ballerina Alla Osipenko. For Osipenko and John Markovsky, her then-husband and partner, Eifman created, among other works, the duet Double Voice, danced to a soundtrack by Pink Floyd. Western rock music at that time was taboo; the duet used Eifman’s typically extreme vocabulary and partnering. It was denounced as “erotica, pornography,” according to Osipenko. At one point the company was threatened with closure if Double Voice was sent onstage. But Eifman prevailed.


In the late-1990s, Eifman and his company began touring the United States with great success. The timing was perfect: There had been an enormous post-perestroika emigration from Russia to the U.S. And Eifman has returned repeatedly to the émigré experience in his ballets, most recently in 2003’s Who’s Who.


“I use my art to understand the secrets of the Russian soul,” Eifman says. Eifman is updating Onegin to today’s turbulent, cataclysmic times in his native country, placing the characters “in new circumstances, more dramatic, even extreme,” now that “the old world is collapsing and life dictates new rules.


“What is the Russian soul today?” Eifman asks. “Has it preserved its uniqueness, its mystery, its attraction? What would the novel’s characters do with their lives today?”


Ballet provides a vehicle to make his statements understood around the world. “The language of the body bears universally understood emotional and spiritual values,” Eifman says.


“I treasure my audience in America,” he continues. “We always get nervous before our tours and we try not to disappoint American ballet lovers.”


The tour goes to Minneapolis, April 24-25, Berkeley, May 1–3, Boston, May 7–10, Chicago, May 14–17, Costa Mesa, May 20–24, before concluding at New York’s City Center May 29–31. —Joel Lobenthal


Still Kickin’ It

Broadway gypsies confront the recession

For Broadway, 2009 started out with a bang—or rather, a crash, as nearly a dozen plays and musicals, including Hairspray, Grease, Spamalot, Spring Awakening, Gypsy, and Young Frankenstein, closed in the first weeks of the year. And while new shows like Shrek the Musical, West Side Story, and Guys and Dolls (see “Movin’ Up”, page 40) opened as planned, several others that had been set for Spring 2009, such as the revival of Bob Fosse’s Dancin’, were postponed to fall or next year.


For dancers, that meant even fewer ensemble jobs in an industry already saturated with talent. “At auditions, there are 300 girls, versus 100 before,” said Samantha Zack, a universal swing in Wicked. “Everyone jokes about it, but I’m sure everybody’s a bit scared.”


Brooke Engen, a dance captain in Hairspray, had a similar experience on the audition scene after her show closed in early January. “There are more people looking for work now than I’ve ever experienced before,” she said. “With so many shows and regional theaters closing, many people are in the same boat.”


But some dancers choose to look at Broadway’s blight as a blessing in disguise, a chance to pursue other interests and opportunities. Zack cited several friends who moved to Los Angeles to audition for commercial gigs in the interim. Engen, who remained with Hairspray through its final show, went on to rejoin the cast of The Awesome 80s Prom off-Broadway, which allowed her to support herself as a performer while planning her next move. Dancer Sarrah Strimel (see “On the Rise,” April ’08), who left Young Frankenstein a month before its closing date was announced, spent two months in Los Angeles performing in the musical Minsky’s, a production directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw that has been in talks to hit Broadway.


Aside from auditioning, artists with time on their hands and creative energy to burn sought venues to experiment with their own material. “Right now a lot of people are writing and creating new works and performing them in workshop settings,” Strimel said. “They’re allowing their creative side to burgeon, whereas before they were just working, working, working.” Dancers also used the time off to get back to class and supplement their skills—not to mention taking care of real-life business: “I’m going to get dental work done that I’ve put off for five years because I haven’t had a break!” Strimel joked. 


Even in the midst of a more-than-usually-bleak winter season, Zack, Engen, and Strimel said they and most of their peers remained hopeful. “For Broadway, just like every other business with this economy, there are going to be hard times,” Zack said. “But just like everything else, it will pick up eventually.”


“I think that with the coming of spring—and the new administration in Washington—there’s an excitement and a new thirst for life,” Engen added. “I’m confident that tourists will be back in New York seeing shows in the months to come.”


And that’s what it comes down to in the end—having an audience. “We’re waiting for people to be ready to come to the arts again,” Strimel said. “They need to be looking for that kind of comfort and spend money to buy tickets. People turn to musical comedy to be their escape from things like this recession. So I’m not nervous. Broadway always survives.” —Kathyrn Holmes


Jenny Lane Recreates Eleanor Powell

Dancers who want to learn or study the work of greats such as Balanchine, Graham, de Mille, Tudor, Fosse, Robbins, and other legends have been lucky. Films of their works abound, and dancers can learn firsthand from company repertories or soloists who studied in a direct line from the original dancers. 


Not so with the tap greats of film musicals. Want to learn Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell’s “Begin the Beguine” number from Broadway Melody of 1940?  Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s stair dance?  Astaire’s famous “ceiling dance” number from the film Royal Wedding? Ann Miller’s lightning-fast tap solo from Small Town Girl? You’re out of luck unless you want to rent the DVD and attempt to learn it yourself. 


New York tap dancer Jenny Lane has been hard at work learning and notating the works of great film musical tappers, with the goal of breaking down the steps for a series of video master classes. Foremost in her focus is the work of Eleanor Powell (1912–1982), who in her 12 films from the ’30s and ’40s established herself as the “most talented and technically adept female tap dancer ever,” says Lane. 


“She was in a class by herself,” Lane says. “I had an immediate connection to her style.” Recognizing that connection decades ago, Lane contacted a friend at MGM Studios in the mid ’80s and borrowed prints of three of Powell’s early films. At first with a film projector in a rehearsal hall and then transferring them onto video, she dissected the steps of Powell’s classic numbers.


“Eleanor Powell was the only dancer besides Fred Astaire who was given choreographic carte blanche at MGM,” Lane says. “She was self-taught, but had crystal clear taps, an amazing array of rhythms in her tapping, and elevated the female tapper to a whole new level.” The experience of learning from an original film is a rare one, Lane believes, and it could be a golden opportunity for tap dancers to further develop their skills.


“It opens up a treasure chest of steps that make a more unique dancer,” Lane says of her journey. “Powell was a virtuoso, and when you push yourself to match a master tapper, you have no choice but to improve.” Lane feels that tap dancers deserve the same opportunity as ballet, modern, and jazz dancers. “Imagine if the only way to learn a solo from Swan Lake was through watching a DVD,” Lane says. “Tap dancers deserve first-hand access to original works just as much as the rest of the dance world.”


Lane, who has been tapping all her life, has learned several of Powell’s complete dances to date.  She has performed them at Lincoln Center’s “Reel to Reel” tribute to Eleanor Powell in 2002, as well as in her one-woman show about Powell. She gives annual workshops in Paris, where she shares the great tap works of the American musical, and teaches private lessons in New York. She often travels to Europe to teach vintage tap (see for her schedule). She hopes to receive a grant to cover not only the notation of Powell’s work, but Fred Astaire’s and that of other major tap choreographers. “It’s our cultural heritage,” she says. “We need to pass it on to future generations.” —Paula Broussard


Valentin Baranovsky, courtesy Orange County Performing Arts Center