The French artist, Auguste Rodin sculpted with clay. Russian choreographer, Boris Eifman sculpts with bodies. Both are master craftsmen at their art and their differing styles have similarly produced memorable images of beauty and brilliance.

Inspired by the life and creative force of the great sculptor, Boris Eifman’s ballet about him, entitled Rodin, premiered in St Petersburg in 2011, and remains a very popular production with audiences, as was seen at the packed Alexandrinsky Theatre on a recent cold and snowy evening in the beautiful Russian city. In this two act ballet, Eifman explores in detail the passion and psychological torment of Rodin, focusing on the French artist’s relationship with his young muse and lover, Camille Claudel. It follows his turbulent affair with her, and Camille’s downfall into madness despite her own genuine talent. In Rodin, Eifman, with the collaboration of brilliant lighting, pleasing costumes and effective – if somewhat sparse – sets, has created, as always, a visually spectacular production, filled with vivid imagery and splendid dancing. His choice of music was an eclectic assortment of familiar pieces by Ravel, Saint-Saëns, Massenet and Debussy – all well selected for the action and scenes they accompanied. 

His ballet takes its audience on a breathless whirlwind journey from the artist’s studio where the creation of recognizable famous masterpieces take place, to the nightlife of Paris with its Can-Can dancers, before sinking into the cold and frightening world of the madhouse. However the most impressive memories were in watching how Eifman, Russia’s most renowned contemporary choreographer, creates his own works of art in a similar way to Rodin himself. Taking the human body rather than clay, he magically manipulates it into extraordinary and stunning shapes and angles. His style is quite unique and the results are always beautiful.

Here in Rodin, the molding was effectively executed in the studio scenes with ‘lumps of clay ’, (scrunched up dancers) sculpted into shapes by the artist who pulls at it to form first an arm, then a head or a leg. Then with smoothing actions he draws the ‘clay’ with upwards movements until his work – ie the dancers – stands completed to show a beautiful sculpture. There were some which brilliantly replicated Rodin’s own masterpieces such as The Kiss, or The Gates of Hell from Dante's Inferno. It was fascinating to watch, and this choreographed artwork was inventive and certainly as creative as the originals. All praise goes to the dancers who stood frozen in poses as the sculpting was being done!

The Eifman Ballet – originally created in 1977 as the Leningrad New Ballet – is made up of 58 dancers, all of them super-charged and spirited. The combination of vitality, dedication and sheer physical hard work puts them in a league of their own – if they were competing in the upcoming Sochi Olympics, they would win every event! Blessed with highly-tuned beautiful bodies, which were clearly seen when, as sculptures, they wore only flesh coloured bra tops and briefs – they exude energy, moving at speed and dancing with dynamic force. However, it is not just the physicality and drive alone that make Eifman’s company one of the most popular in Russia. It is the forceful drama and passion that he infuses into his choreography. He creates, onto a solid classical foundation, elements of gymnastics, acrobatics, street and contemporary styles, and he fuses these with 
powerful and expressive overtones of psychological theatricality, which makes for an exciting performance. His works are packed with bravura and explosive action, and he loves to pull apart human limitations in both mind and body.

The ballet opens in an insane asylum where straggly-haired women wearing white dresses and mobcaps with staring eyes and blank smiles move in a senseless roundelay. One of these females is Camille Claudel. Though she was a brilliant artist herself, her genius was lost after the break-up of her relationship with Rodin and she descended into depression and eventually madness, blaming him for her demise. She sits, with hands flailing at her predicament, among these other mad women. The scenario then returns to earlier days when the artist first spots her and, admiring her talent and beauty, takes her, literally, under his wing. The two soon become lovers and a wild fiery and ultimately destructive passion ensues, in sharp contrast to the loveless marriage that Rodin has with Rose Beuret.

Taking the role of Camille was Lyubov Andreyeva, a slight, lithe ballerina who seemingly has no bones in her body. She can bend, crumple, stretch into beautiful poses, fall to the floor only to bounce up again, and her split-second timings where she leapt from afar into her partner’s arms were heart-stopping for her courage and assurance that he would always catch her. The same admiration goes for Oleg Gabyshev as Rodin. Elegant in every move, he spun furiously on bent and straight legs, leapt like a wild cougar from one height to another, and seemed to possess super strength in his double share of pas de deux when lifting, tossing or carrying not only Lyubov but also, with different reactions, when dancing with his wife Rose. Andreyeva and Gabyshev made an amazing couple who, despite the constant physical challenges that were demanded of them, were totally convincing in everything they did. In the role of Rose Beuret, Nina Zmievets was also impressive with her pleading, stretched, and smooth body movements, which clearly demonstrated her inner emotional pain.

The electricity and energy exuded from the whole company was enough to light – and keep burning – the Olympic torch.