Review: Tchaikovsky: PRO et CONTRA (Eifman Ballet/Show One Productions/TO Live)

Image of Eifman Ballet: Tchaikovsky. PRO et CONTRA provided by Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg.Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg returns to Toronto with a ballet inspired by Tchaikovsky’s life

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is one of the the most well-known and widely-loved classical music composers of all time. He’s the auteur of monumental and enduringly popular ballets, operas, and symphonies. The Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg has created Tchaikovsky: PRO et CONTRA, a show inspired by the composer’s life and drawing music and imagery from his numerous compositions.

Known for their artistry and theatricality, the Eifman Ballet’s latest offering—choreographed by the company’s Artistic Director Boris Eifman—does not disappoint. This is contemporary ballet; the expression is big, the style is free, the lifts are daring and original, and Eifman’s soloists and corps de ballet are able to execute the bold choreography with panache. 

At the start of the ballet, we find Tchaikovsky (Oleg Gabyshev) on his death bed. His life flashes before his eyes and intermixes with scenes from some of his most famous works; Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Eugene Onegin, and The Queen of Spades; the people in his life intermingle with the fictional characters he has created.

The Russian composer’s life was characterized by a series of personal tragedies, and by the fact that he was gay and had to hide his sexuality from the public. He endured an unhappy marriage with a former student, Antonina Milyukova, but also enjoyed the patronage and moral support of a wealthy widow, Nadezhda von Meck. The two women are central figures in the ballet (danced on opening night by Lyubov Andreyeva and Alina Petrovskaya respectively) along with an alter ego “double” of Tchaikovsky himself (Igor Subbotin).

The ballet essentially relies on the “tortured queer artist” trope, where the artist’s suffering and sense of isolation is also apparently the source of his creative genius, but it’s executed in a way that’s interesting to watch and narratively compelling.

That isn’t to say the execution is at all subtle but the intention is always clear. When Tchaikovsky first meets Milyukova she is literally thrown at him. During their pas de deux her expression is beaming and radiant while he remains sullen; he is literally just going through the motions with his partner.

Later, Tchaikovsky dances a pas de deux with von Rothbart, as if his villain from Swan Lake embodies a personal demon. The female dance corps then appears en pointe, in the iconic white swan tutus and the composer mingles among them as if to suggest he is the delicate swan in this scenario.

In another scene, the Prince in The Nutcracker (Daniel Rubin) becomes the illusory object of Tchaikovsky’s desire as the composer flows in and out of a pas de deux between the Prince and Masha as the rats circle in around them. The scene is moving, if a bit on-the-nose.

In the second act, the Eugene Onegin scene is perhaps a bit too understated compared to the other tableaux and the narrative rationale for its inclusion isn’t as well drawn out. 

On the other hand, the Queen of Spades scene is the biggest tonal shift in the show, also providing the sole moment of levity. The male dance corps performs daring, synchronized leaps off the surface of a felt-top card table. It’s technically dazzling and exhilarating to watch.

I found the musical selection for the ballet interesting even though the music is regrettably presented in pre-recorded form rather than performed live by an orchestra. 

Eifman’s approach was not to pull excerpts from the composer’s more famous works referenced in the show—you will not hear the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy or the theme from Swan Lake here—but instead he sets the ballet to music from Tchaikovsky’s Symphonies No. 5 and No. 6 as well as his Serenade for strings in C major and a couple other pieces unrelated to the referenced works. 

The choice of the musical selection lends a sense of cohesion to the piece as well as a driving sense of flow. By avoiding the use of the more familiar music, the show effectively avoids becoming a pastiche and looking like a Tchaikovsky “jukebox musical” in dance form.

All in all, Tchaikovsky: PRO et CONTRA is a thoroughly enjoyable evening of dance. Don’t miss your chance to see the Eifman Ballet on their latest visit to Toronto. 

Details:

Images of Eifman Ballet: Tchaikovsky. PRO et CONTRA provided by Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg.

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