Psychological Ballet Art: A Q&A with Boris Eifman

The acclaimed Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg is currently touring the United States. The company’s latest ballet, Up and Down, tells the story of a successful psychiatrist and socialite who loses his mind and soul to the glamorous, but ultimately corrosive, temptations of jazz age materialism. “In the world enslaved by money and dark instincts, a true harmony is impossible. The kingdom of luxury, in which the doctor immerses, turns out a perilous morass,” says Artistic Director and choreographer Boris Eifman. The World Dances spoke with Eifman about the creation of his new ballet, his artistic inspiration, and the philosophy behind his work. You can watch a preview of Up and Down here. The company will be performing in California June 5 and 6 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts and June 12-14 at The Music Center.

What is interesting to you, personally, about the story of this ballet?

In the first place, I was captivated by the idea of depicting a story about a talented and energetic man betraying himself, his own gift. This spinelessness leads to the total degradation of the ballet’s main character. I think that such a kind of betrayal is the worst one, as the existential mission of a person is to protect its own identity. But the reality is that we live in the world of fatal temptations, and not everyone is ready to pass through this minefield. Up & Down is a very up-to-date story. If only we take a look around, we’ll see a lot of people who ruined their life with their own hands.    

What was your creative process like, both in construing the story and making the choreography?

The creative process is a mystery that cannot be described in words. Moreover, when I start working on a new story or composing choreography, I sometimes can’t even predict where this way will lead. But I trust my gift, the ability to convey philosophical ideas through movement. The success that Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg achieves all over the world proves that today’s spectators really feel a need for the ballet productions dealing with the intellectual themes of great importance and trying to resolve the “cursed questions” of human life.

Your ballets are often more introspective, if not darker, than many. What attracts you to making such contemplative works? And why do you think dance is a compelling medium for telling these stories?

Well, I actually don’t consider my ballets to be dark or hopeless. But the truth is that art is not rose-colored entertainment. It must provoke the reflection and reach the deepest spheres of our inner world leading the audience to the catharsis. I believe that dance is a unique and magic means of exploring a human soul. And if the choreographer doesn’t treat it as a mere sequence of empty movements, then this ancient language turns into a really powerful tool of psychological and intellectual research that all the scientists could envy. That’s why our company is successively developing the plastic language of psychological ballet art creating the high-demand original ballet repertory of modern Russia.      

Is it challenging setting such deeply introspective ballets on your dancers? How do they learn the philosophical and emotional facets of this ballet? And, do you specifically select dancers with unusual emotional depth?

My mission is to “infect” the company dancers with my own creative ideas, to make them the co-authors—and not the marionettes of the choreographer. Then we form one artistic body, and my stream of thought becomes their own. Also, I try to select dancers characterized by obvious dramatic gift and insight. Needless to say, finding such performers is a challenging task.   

What do you think will be your next undertaking?

I’m superstitious like everyone else in the world of art. When I start creating a new production, I’ll be able to announce it. One thing can be said for sure: Eifman Ballet will do its best to overwhelm you with its forthcoming performance.