By Jane Rosenberg
Famous artists in torment are a subject of fascination in the popular imagination. Make it two tormented artists in a romantic relationship and the appeal doubles. Biographies, films, and even novelizations of the lives of, for example: Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, or Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre abound.
In this vein, Boris Eifman, the Russian choreographer known internationally for his heavily plotted, narrative ballets explores the intense relationship of the sculptor Auguste Rodin with the artist Camille Claudel. It is a subject ripe for the Eifman technique, which interweaves classical ballet movement, modern dance, and in the choreographer’s words, “ecstatic impulses” all at the service of psychological dance theatre.
In Rodin, we travel back and forth in time, largely between the mental asylum where Camille was incarcerated and Rodin’s workshop. Architecturally, the set by Zinovy Margolin is a marvel of lines and planes reminiscent of Russian Constructivist theatre sets of the early twentieth century. The angles, multi-levels, and platforms provide the backdrop for the workshop, the asylum, and various other locations such as the dance hall of Act Two.
Set to a selection of late nineteenth, early twentieth century French music by Ravel, Saint-Saëns, Massenet, Debussy, and Satie, which is woven seamlessly throughout, the ballet has many moments of breathtaking beauty, imaginative choreography, and penetrating insight, all superbly danced by Oleg Gabyshev as Rodin, Lyubov Andreyeva as Camille, and Yulia Manjeles as Rodin’s lifelong companion, Rose Beuret.
Like the clay with which Rodin and Camille sculpt their forms, the choreography in Act One is tied to the earth, reminiscent of Martha Graham’s elemental movements. Echoes of Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography also haunt the piece, and awareness of his declining mental state adds another layer of meaning.
Art and sensuality seem inextricably mixed, particularly in the sensuality of the clay as depicted in Rodin’s “modeling” of form. In a mesmerizing scene, Rodin stands before a group of semi-nude male figures crouching on a rotating circular table. As Rodin pushes, twists, and strokes these figures, he seems to draw form out of this mass of bodies. Slowly a limb extends or a knee juts out, until the figures stand erect, becoming Rodin’s Burghers of Calais. The magic is achieved by Eifman’s choreography, Gabyshev’s raw physical power, and the sculptural lighting of Gleb Filshtinsky.
Notable in Act One is a dance for the asylum inmates, women dressed in cream colored nightdresses and lace sleeping caps, who dance holding pillows, which in turn become babies cradled in their arms, toys they play with, or a repository for their tears. At some moments one thinks of the spectral Willis of Giselle, the victims of their sweethearts’ indifference, at another, the children at play in The Nutcracker, rocking their dolls or frolicking about the Stahlbaum house. Both instances help in heightening dramatic tension.
In a dream sequence, which serves as a counterpoint to the earthier and more tortured dancing of Act One, couples dressed in silky charcoal grays, beautifully conceived by costume designer Olga Shaishmelashvili, dance with classical elegance to Saint-Saëns Dance Macabre. More confused however is the dance of the workshop assistants at the beginning of the act, which looks like a nod to the cowboys of Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo or the sailors of Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free – cute and lively, but a bit out of place in a French sculptor’s workshop.
All in all, Act One is a gem of dance drama. Even the tortured, angst driven dancing manages to stay just on the right side of romantic sentimentality. Gabyshev’s Rodin as consumed artist and sexual predator has an iconic reality to it. Andreyeva’s Camille as Rodin’s ambitious, sensual, yet unstable student and fellow artist is a passionate performance. And Manjeles is majestic as the long-suffering Rose.
Act Two begins with another striking effect: Rodin creating the Gates of Hell. On metal scaffolding representing an immense doorway, dancers configure into positions reflecting Rodin’s famed relief sculpture.
Unfortunately, problems arise as Act Two progresses when the proverbial kitchen sink syndrome derails the ballet. What had been a precisely structured examination into the life of art, tackling issues of creativity, recognition, fame, love, and madness turns into a pastiche of nineteenth century dance references and an unnecessary heightening of the angst ridden choreography. A harvest wine dance à la Giselle, with girls in brightly clad peasant dresses, grows out of nowhere (justified by Rodin’s dreaming of his first meeting with Rose), followed a bit later by a Parisian dance hall cancan scene when Camille leaves Rodin for the bright lights of the big city. Both are crowd-pleasers, no doubt, but Eifman’s showmanship here gets in the way of his artistry. Further compromising Act Two is the overstated tension within the love triangle of Rodin, Camille, and Rose. The tortured dancing grows repetitive and dilutes the undeniable power of the first act.
Where Eifman succeeds in Act Two is in turning the hammering of stone, done first by Camille, and then in the ballet’s final scene by Rodin, into blazing dance movement. His back towards us and bare chested, Gabyshev works away at the stone, his body torqueing side to side; and we are left with the image of the artist as Hephaestus forging life out of the furnace of human will and desire.
Rodin: Oleg Gabyshev
Camille: Lyubov Andreyeva
Rose Beuret: Yulia Manjeles
Choreography: Boris Eifman
Music: Maurice Ravel, Camille Saint-Saëns, Jules Massenet, Claude Debussy, Erik Satie
Sets: Zinovy Margolin
Costumes: Olga Shaishmelashvili
Lighting: Gleb Filshtinsky, Boris Eifman
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To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.
Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets. Jane is also the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children