As of last year, the Eifman Ballet is in Berlin as part of the Russian Seasons, the event series dedicated to the promotion of Russian culture in cities all over Germany. Over four days, the company presented two programmes: their newest work, The Pygmalion Effect premiered this February and Anna Karenina (2005). This is already a tight agenda but it is only a drop of Eifman’s more than fifty works. The foyer of the Theater am Potsdamer Platz is so packed with Russian speaking couples and families that one feels like being in St Petersburg, the company's home.

<i>The Pygmalion Effect</i> © Evgeny Matveev
The Pygmalion Effect
© Evgeny Matveev

In two acts, The Pygmalion Effect starts by juxtaposing the rough life of young Gala (Lyubov Andreyeva) who helps her father in his not so prosperous tourist coach tour business with the full luxury of ballroom dance champion Leon (Oleg Gabyshev). Their two worlds collide when Leon, who has just lost a tournament and with it his dancing partner, Tea (Alina Petrovskaya), is attacked by a band of rogues. Gala comes to his rescue and he invites her home to thank her, and where she decides to also become a dancer. Gala’s father is not much of an example as he forbids her from staying with Leon only to follow the first woman he meets. Mobbed at the dance school even by the teacher, Leon vouches for Gala and bets that he will transform her into a wonderful dancer. In the meantime, his father, in an alcohol-induced sleep, has a vision of an angel forbidding his favourite occupations: sex and drink. In the second act, we see how Leon, despite the jealousy of his housemaids and his previous dance partner, Tea, literally re-programmes Gala’s clumsy uncoordinated brain to mould her into the perfect dancing doll with whom he wins the competition (and his bet). Still, he cannot picture a life with her and so he leaves her with her shiny tiara and glittery gown at the mercy of the same band of rouges. They recognise her; she realises she no longer belongs there and throws her tiara to appease them and run off after Leon, the man she loves. In the end, we see her, a perfectly elegant dance queen but immensely lonely, on a bench where she falls asleep. Slumber is the only place where she can reach the man of her dreams.

<i>The Pygmalion Effect</i> © Natalia Voronova
The Pygmalion Effect
© Natalia Voronova

The myth of Pygmalion and Galatea brings us back to the very start of the ballet tradition with Jean-Philippe Rameau’s one act opera-ballet of 1748. As Rameau, Eifman also changes Ovid’s original by reversing love interest and doubling the female figure (Gala and Tea). Eifman’s version reminds one closely of the film My Fair Lady (1964) with an unarticulated Audrey Hepburn being taught to speak properly by Rex Harrison's Professor Higgins. In this case, it is the body that is schooled to form specific forms as, dancing her way through feathers and glitter, from rags to riches, Gala acquires a perfect ‘ballroom technique’ (and not ballet). The idea of the ballroom competition allows for somehow ‘balletified’, but not less serious, ballroom skills. At the same time, the movements (pasodoble for example) do not always fit the music by Johann Strauss and so contribute to a slight but interesting irritation. The Pygmalion Effect is different from what I saw by Eifman in Berlin and during his New York debut in 1998. The narration is clear, convincing and entertaining but something seems not to sit quite right: the characters, especially Gala, are over-typified – she is a hunched bendy sylph, whose limbs have a mind of their own – the mime is also over-caricatured, almost slapstick, untypical for Eifman, and to that the cheerfulness associated to the music, mostly by Strauss, is at odds with some of the action. But, the whole is resolved in the last bench scene. This very last dance, on the Adagio from Mozart's Piano Concerto in no. 23 in A major, is beautifully tender and delicate, with no ‘over-mime’. It is as if Gala has finally dropped the mask she needed to survive in the underworld to reveal her inner struggles. He gave her hopes for a better life and now she cannot let go.

<i>The Pygmalion Effect</i> © Souheil Michael Khoury
The Pygmalion Effect
© Souheil Michael Khoury

It is a bittersweet ending that leaves one wanting the dance to go on and end on a more positive note. Extremely entertaining, with super quick changes in costumes and scenography, I will be haunted by images of a naked Leon taking a shower with his housemaids hovering like bees around honey, of an angel on a hover-board and of a lonely Gala on a bench being kissed by her dream man. If you love feathers and glitters, tiaras and ballroom competitions, this show is for you. It is that bit of Art Deco that will dazzle your Berlin night.

*****