What is the substance that makes up our dreams and nightmares? In Tchaikovsky: PRO et CONTRA, which ruffled audiences at Toronto’s Sony Centre stage from May 9 to May 11, choreographer Boris Eifman brings some answers into vibrant contour. Taking for his subject the life and times of Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) – the illustrious Imperial Russian composer of ballets such as The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake – Eifman produces more than a narrative biographical record, or an ode to musical talent. While broadly achieving both of these things, he also uses Tchaikovsky’s persona, fictionalized and broken down into palpitating fragments, as a specific case study to explore the epic possibilities of intellectual and emotional vulnerability inside every human being. By shedding light on Tchaikovsky’s troubled and almost-mythical silhouette using body language, Eifman incarnates the textures of hallucination in the flesh.
Over the course of two gripping hours, viewers catch a keyhole glimpse into Tchaikovsky’s bedroom. There, the ebb and flow of a secret inner life is laid bare as Eifman psychoanalyzes his hero to unpack the painful and ecstatic, winding crevices and paradoxical details of his imagination. As the curtain rises, Tchaikovsky, danced sensationally by Oleg Gabyshev, is seen on his bed on the verge of death as he fiercely battles the last of his demons. In a series of vigorous twists and turns with his arms outstretched in all directions, he contorts his torso along the bed, leaping up from it only to throw himself violently back down. During this first display reminiscent of Henry Fuseli’s 1781 painting The Nightmare, we bear witness to a terminal and convulsive sleep paralysis brought upon by “monsters under the bed”, as it were, literally emerging from below to haunt Tchaikovsky via a concealed trap door. Through recurring flashbacks, this “Pandora’s box” bed will appear again frequently – pathologically, even – during the production in a splintered vignette depicting the most intense peaks of the composer’s personal turmoil and eventual psychological undoing.
In the scenes which follow the explosive overture, an assortment of coy and charming characters comes to meet with the protagonist in an ominous parade – to enchant him at first, only to torment him in the end. Summoned both from history (Lyubov Andreyeva as his wife Antonina Milyukova) and from within the Romantic fantasies of the ballet-féeries that are part of his legacy (Igor Subbotin as his many evil doubles), Tchaikovsky’s most intimate place – his bedside – is visited by foes masquerading as friends to play with his body and to wage war with his mind. He dances with these irresistible soulmates and doppelgangers, who appear in such fictional guises as The Nutcracker’s Drosselmeyer and Swan Lakes’ von Rothbart. With counterparts both male and female, Tchaikovsky collides in erotically-charged pas-de-deux bordering on sadomasochistic violence in which they both complete and defeat him.
Time and time again, mobs of ghostly, bird-like aristocrats emerge thunderously from thin air to tempt and corrupt Tchaikovsky with their glamour and charisma only to withdraw into the woodwork from which he conjured them. The moody partnering which results out of this ongoing tension is brave and engaged: Gabyshev picks his myriad alter egos from the crowd and latches onto them in serpentine lifts and leaps as their legs and arms entwine together with an ease which manages to appear both elegant and smutty all at once. In staging these fervent displays of lust and affection between his dancers, gender notwithstanding, Eifman weaves an intricate and nuanced try at subverting the Romantic ballet canon that is so stereotypically associated with Tchaikovsky, demonstrating the unnerving complexity which actually underlies all creativity – even, and perhaps especially, the fairy tale. In Eifman’s world, categories are exploded to make way for infinity.
That said, Eifman still works with binaries: his hero is half the carnal adult and half the tender child, half human and half animal, half order and half chaos. Tchaikovsky’s mind-body duality haunts him: “I think – therefore I am” is too much for him to bear. The use of contemporary choreography throughout the show – flexed feet, bent knees, thrusting hips, and all – alongside high contrast in set and costume design featuring a muted minimalist art deco backdrop and candy-hued tutus glittering in rainbow swaths on corps ballerinas all contribute to a dissonant vision weighing the scales between all the PRO and the CONTRA which makes up life: innocence and corruption, pleasure and pain, naiveté and experience. Falling through the looking glass of his own mind like a gender-reversed Alice in Wonderland, Tchaikovsky encounters a mirror image where things are still of this world – all familiar and all in their place – only distorted to appear upside down and out of proportion. As he is indecorously crucified upside down, like St. Peter, on a poker table in the last scene, this metaphor comes to full fruition.
In Eifman’s world, the story works backwards from the present, regressing, with suspense, into the past – from the light of day to the dark void of the subconscious. Going back in time, Eifman also goes deeper and deeper inward. While inevitably making some prejudiced conclusions about history while also opting for bold anachronisms, he pulls off an effective spectacle by invoking from each one of his dancers clean technical finesse oozing with emotionality – the result is a virtuosic display of unabashed humanity. While this work is an evocative and nostalgic tribute to an aching life long extinguished, it also sparks a flame by demonstrating philosophy through intimacy. By activating body language, Eifman expresses some of the unspeakable parts of existence, and brings forward the age-old expression by Shakespeare’s Prospero in The Tempest: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.”
Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg presented Tchaikovsky: PRO et CONTRA on May 9, 10, and 11 at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.
Anna Paliy is a former rhythmic gymnast and a second-year doctoral student in the Centre for Drama at the University of Toronto, where she is also a member of the Institute for Dance Studies. She is writing her dissertation on intercultural dance history in Europe (1890-1930), focusing on the storytelling potential of theatrical costume design in ballet. Anna’s essays and concert reviews have appeared in the journals Kino, Semicolon, Transverse, The Dance Current, and The WholeNote.