It’s not often that we see comic ballet. The art form is perhaps too self-conscious in its alliance to physical beauty. But last weekend the Eifman Ballet of St Petersburg brought its recent comic ballet The Pygmalion Effect to Cal Performances. The performance had plusses and minuses as large as the comedy itself.

Oleg Gabyshev (Leon) and Lyubov Andreeva (Gala) © Courtesy of Eifman Ballet
Oleg Gabyshev (Leon) and Lyubov Andreeva (Gala)
© Courtesy of Eifman Ballet

Boris Eifman’s company has long been considered radical, a company led by an idiosyncratic and talented choreographer eager to challenge the trajectory of dance offered by the country’s major companies. Eifman has said he wants move dance back into theater and to use movement to explore the psychological. Both of these the company accomplishes. The choreography serves story and plot and it is wild and heterogeneous, a collision of moves from ballet, contemporary dance and ballroom energetically woven together.

The Pygmalion Effect refers not simply to the classical Greco-Roman story of the artist who falls in love with his own creation, but also to a phenomenon in psychology: that expectations lead to actuality. If you are expected by others to succeed, you will; if you aren’t, you won’t. This isn’t the theme of George Bernard Shaw’s play, the basis of the musical My Fair Lady, but Eifman uses many of the characters and events from that play in his psychology–based ballet.

Alina Petrovskaya (Teya) and Oleg Gabyshev (Leon) © Courtesy of Eifman Ballet
Alina Petrovskaya (Teya) and Oleg Gabyshev (Leon)
© Courtesy of Eifman Ballet

The young girl Gala and her drinking, womanizing father (Dmitry Fischer) live in raucous poverty among the street people in the city. Gala (Lyubov Andreyeva) chances upon a ballroom dance contest, and is mesmerized by the elegance and implied wealth of the participants: men in tight black pants and sheer, open-to-the-waist shirts and women in glittering crystals and sequins, all oozing provocatively and twirling intently around the dance floor. Leon (Oleg Gabyshev), the long-legged prince of ballroom with the well-developed glutes, loses the competition because of an error made by his partner, Tea (Alina Petroskaya). This has him looking round for a new partner. Who else but the gawky and impetuous Gala? He bets his dance coach (Igor Subbotin) that he will turn Gala into a star.

The dancing was superb. Not only the soloists, but also the copious corps de ballet, at a mind-boggling 39 dancers, were beautifully trained and entertainingly energetic. No matter how questionable the story – and let’s face it, if ballroom dancing is a central motif there’s bound to be something a little cheesy about the production – the skill of the dancers reigned supreme. Even set to two hours of music by the Strauss brothers (Johann, Josef and Eduard), the dancing (to seemingly endless polkas, galops and waltzes) was divine.

Oleg Gabyshev (Leon) and Lyubov Andreeva (Gala) © Courtesy of Eifman Ballet
Oleg Gabyshev (Leon) and Lyubov Andreeva (Gala)
© Courtesy of Eifman Ballet

Turning Gala into a star turns out to be more difficult than imagined. It is only after a gadget posing as a helmet with flashing lights is placed on her head and her brains zapped into obedience that she is able to perform with the disciplined grace needed to win the next dance competition. An odd way for the choreographer to steal away the character’s success and individuality. Like Eliza Doolittle, Gala is furious at her mentor for ignoring her part in their victory. But unlike Eliza, rather than throwing bedroom slippers at Leon, Gala is abandoned, left to dance a poignant duet with a public bench on an empty street. The situation you were born into, the ballet seems to assert, your heredity and class will ultimately determine your future.

But who cares about psychology or class politics, when you have such dancers? As psychologically challenging as I found this evening’s performance, I would go see Eifman Ballet again.


***11