For nearly half a century, the Russian choreographer, Boris Eifman has been creating ballets, beginning during the Soviet era when anything contemporary was condemned as decadent western influence. Yet, despite the challenges he faced from the authorities, he journeyed on to become acknowledged today as one of, if not the greatest living Russian choreographer in that country. His works are dramatically and visually exciting, his dancers, several of whom are prizewinners in international competitions, are drilled to aesthetic military precision. His themes, based on top literature, theatre, opera and famous personalities, are always attention grabbing and he takes liberties in the re-telling of his selected stories. This year celebrates the 40th anniversary of his company, Eifman Ballet of St Petersburg, (originally known as the Leningrad New Ballet), of which he is the sole choreographer.

Back in London for a weeklong stay at the London Coliseum, he has brought his latest work, premiered in Russia in 2015, which is based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel Tender is the Night. Eifman has renamed it Up and Down  since his focus is on the main character’s rise as a talented and charming psychiatrist but who, corrupted by the lure of money, loses everything and ends up as a jabbering patient back in his own clinic. The first act is set in a stark and sterile ward in a mental institution, where Dick Diver tends to his obsessive patients with a mixture of stern handling and hypnotic clenching of their heads with his hands. These five poor souls range from a girl hugging an oversized doll, a man who won’t be parted from his three-legged stool, another who is determined to hang himself, a girl heavily bandaged and scratching herself compulsively, and a man who tries to pull down his trousers, only to have his elastic braces yanked and tied by the doctor. All patients wear white and have vacant faces that grin out at the audience. Their movements are jerky and uncontrolled and the clinic scenes are awkward to watch – many in the audience found them distasteful depictions of the mentally challenged.

Into this mayhem of madness comes a wealthy father urgently demanding treatment for his withdrawn stone-faced daughter, Nicole. It turns out, as cameo scenes reveal in the raising of a panel in the backdrop, that she has been abused by her father since her mother’s death. Her frenetic fear of all men leads her to a forceful, almost brutal duet with Diver until she finally succumbs to his treatment. However, she is often joined by her doppelganger self who attempts to pull her back into the darkness of her mind. But love blossoms and the first act concludes with her and Dick’s wedding in the asylum attended by balloon-toting inmates. 

The second act sees the degradation of the young psychiatrist, wooed by the father’s money and living the high life in the south of France. He meets a beautiful young film starlet, Rosemary Hoyt and is immediately smitten by her. When his wife goes off with another man, he takes to the bottle, is beaten up by thugs and becomes a broken man. In the final
moments of the ballet we see his descent into madness and his return to the clinic, now as a patient, surrounded by dollar bills. Not the most cheerful of scenarios but the ‘down’ side was thankfully lifted ‘up’ by the giddy flapper scenes of the Roaring Twenties showing life outside the sanatorium walls. 

The music for the production was an eclectically recorded but smoothly blended combination of Schubert, Berg and Gershwin, and with the latter, the company enjoyed the vitality of the Jazz Era dances, offering some perky moments that showered us with colour-relief after all that clinical white. In nightclubs they performed a zesty Charleston, and razzle-dazzled to wonderful Gershwin’s songs such as I Got Rhythm and Walking the Dog, lifting our spirits and setting toes tapping. Their quick-change eye-candy costumes, created by Olga Shaishmelashvili, ranged from swimsuits to formal black gowns. The sets, which saw plenty of
neon and black and white pattern-changing circles, were created by Zinovy Margolin.

Eifman’s choreography is always clear and sharply defined and his movements graphically describe the story line. Yet the realization and choreography of Up and Down cannot be compared to his excellent Rodin (seen two years ago). This latest ballet is fast-paced and develops through numerous short scenes but lacks the exciting depths of his former works. The best moments are his pas de deux, especially the romantic one between Nicole and her lover Tommy, which was silky smooth and elegant, while Dick and Rosemary were forcefully passionate. Eifman gives his dancers strong yet resilient and often gymnastic actions – and he has the perfect set of dancers to show his work off. In Oleg Gabyshev (Dick) he has a gem. Slim and handsome, his seemingly easy manner can suddenly erupt into powerful leaps and strong physically exhausting partnering. Lyubov Andreyeva as Nicole showed fluid lyricism in her eloquent arms and graceful legs. Maria Abashova (Rosemary) played the glamorous movie star with assurance, flashing her eyes and looking stunning in her sunshine yellow trouser outfit. She, like Andreyeva, showed off high extension and rock-steady technique along with great stamina during the physical duets. Eifman certainly sets his dancers challenges to conquer.