Method Meets Madness

The Eifman Ballet's lavish production of Don Quixote, steeped in humor and featuring virtuoso dancers, is one of the company's best.

Ruth Eshel
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Ruth Eshel

The Eifman Ballet is practically a regular guest in Israel; this time it brought two splendid works, "Onegin," which played the Opera a year ago, and "Don Quixote," performed here for the first time. Don Quixote to the music of Ludwig Minkus deals with the escape from reality toward a dream: a dream in which it is possible to realize all that cannot be had in real life. It is both a very human and relevant topic. The dance bears the stamp of Eifman's neoclassical style, characterized by a completely professional and lavish production with virtuoso dancers. This time the narrative is steeped in humor, bypassing an excess of drama, and bursting with creativity. It is one of Eifman's best works.

The story takes place in a psychiatric institution under the strict supervision of a doctor (Angela Farouk Verova ); it looks more like a playground where the patients amuse themselves with buckets, which also serve as seats or may be worn on the head or as masks to hide behind. They also play with a ball and balloons. The patients have the bodies of adults but the souls of dreamy children at play, as long as this play is carried out in secret and hidden from the doctor. She wears a tie and her appearance causes the patents to tremble with fear until they seem like marionettes on the edge of collapse, or birds hysterically flapping their wings. Don Quixote, tall and of noble bearing, with white hair and a neat beard (Oleg Markov ), has the look of a poet. He is unwilling to be distracted with games and incessantly practices guided imagery while reading Cervantes' book.

The Eifman Ballet putting on 'Don Quixote.' Tilting and dancing.Credit: Anna Koreisheva

Throughout the work, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (Alexander Melkaev ) move between dream and reality. How the dream is born, grows, takes over and then gradually dies is the challenge Eifman faces; his wonderful solution is an ancient, tottering, arched structure with two floors that crosses the entire stage. It is high, reaching the ceiling of the stage, which is also the ceiling of the institution, but not opaque.

In dream moments, the Spanish sun flickers through the arches, sending warm yellow light to flood the stage. The black walls of the asylum are lit up, as though a torch shone on the richness of life in the depths of the ocean. Out of the darkness, drawings of villages, lush fields, peasants and gypsies are revealed. The same structure, a symbol of the asylum, remains standing and blends with the magical environment, or perhaps it is an aqueduct transporting ancient waters or broken antiques from the palace.

The changing lighting serves to conduct the deep layers of the dream. It reveals and conceals. When the first lights break through, they spring to life, flooding the stage with dance when Don Quixote and his helper are active in their invisible territory.

Behind all Don Quixote's activity is an aspiration for life with significance, self-realization and a search for love. And so he does not make do with reaching imagined distances but also wants to be involved in meaningful activities. He happens upon a village and saves beautiful Kitri (Svetlana Bednenko ) from a forced marriage to a noble, the rich knight Gamache (Vladimir Dorokhin ), so that she may marry her beloved Basil (Yuri Kovalev ). The same iron pole which the doctor uses to threaten the patients becomes Don Quixote's spear in a bizarre war for Kitri; it is carried out in a manner resembling puppet theater or scenes in a Charlie Chaplin film - where a series of random actions, without intending to, brings about the desired result. In the same scene, Basil stands out as a caricature of a foppish, elegant nobleman, whose sinuous dancing reveals his desire to prey on the beautiful young woman.

Eifman's dancers are better than excellent, and he knows how to use their potential. He is familiar with their bodies, flexibility and power, creating dances who flatter their bodies: the men's wonderful jumps, with the same exact screwlike turns in the air before landing; the height of the women's legs and their flexible and sensuous torsos. The ensemble dances are a feast for the eyes. Their color and precision, the quality of movement and professional choreography infuse the space with multi-vocal richness, narrowing into duets and solos, returning to take a deep breath and then flooding the stage again.

In the second part of the piece, Don Quixote reaches a tavern which enables Eifman to present brawls between hot-tempered young men, in the style of West Side Story. Don Quixote sets out to defend Dulcinea, a bar girl who becomes his lover and joins in his imagined journeys. How wonderful to be a knight, a fighter for justice, to wander the world and be loved by a beautiful young woman. We all aspire to the place where Eifman leads us with his Don Quixote.

The lights change, and Don Quixote and Sancho Panza continue to run, to tour imaginary new places, to fight monsters or fears portrayed by giant puppets which dance from the ceiling, and when the light slowly dims, like midnight chiming for Cinderella, the magic expires, and Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are once again in an asylum - until their next journey.

Cervantes' Don Quixote. Ballet by Boris Eifman. The St. Petersburg State Academic Ballet Theater. Music: Ludwig Minkus. Design, lighting and costumes: Vyacheslav Okunev. Dance at the Israeli Opera - Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center. September 20.

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