With the constant focus on Russia over the last few days (as host of the Football World Cup 2018) on most media channels, it's been great to be able to experience some of the country's cultural riches live in the theatre, through the festival La Saison Russe in Berlin. The Eifman Ballet, based in St. Petersburg, presented two repertoire works, closing this short season with Boris Eifman’s most iconic ballet, Red Giselle. This tribute to the great Russian ballerina Olga Spessivtseva is a reinterpretation of the Romantic classic tracing parallels between the ballet and Spessivtseva’s life and her escape from becoming a pawn for communist propaganda at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Eifman Ballet in <i>Red Giselle</i> © Yulia Kudryashova
Eifman Ballet in Red Giselle
© Yulia Kudryashova

Premiered in 1997 and reworked in 2015, it is now presented in this new version. A full length two acts ballet, Eifman's Red Giselle draws on the life of the ballerina Spessivtseva. Known for her interpretation of Giselle and Odette/Odile, Spessivtseva had a very intense life. The ballet traces it from her start at the Mariinsky Theatre, her marriage to a KGB officer, her escape to Europe and her mental illness. Based on Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot’s 1841 work, Eifman’s version is splendidly elaborate making references to the original on many levels. Besides the comparison of the two lives and the fact that Giselle was Spessivtseva favourite character, some ballet sequences are incorporated in the form of a dance within a dance. But there is also a clear reference to Mats Ek’s version, ending in a sanatorium. The whole evening is a constant going back and forth between the Giselle of the second and of the first act. Beside this, there are also many echoes to famous works or choreographers that I identified throughout, such as Marius Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty, the diagonal from the first act, the Reign of the Shadows from La Bayadère also by Petipa and George Balanchine inspired sequences. Meaning is woven in through the movement choices as Eifman skillfully alternates classical ballet (Spessivtseva’s life on stage) and contemporary ballet (her destructive life off stage). This is also signalled by the change in costume: tutus or floor lengths flowing dresses. In Russia, the ballerina is depicted divided between the affection of her ballet mentor and the sexual attention of the Revolutionary. This last memory follows her as a shadow into her new life once she migrated, possibly as the real Speesivtseva, to France. Here her unrequited love for a dancer brings her to a mental breakdown, becoming mad while performing Giselle’s mad scene.

Eifman Ballet in <i>Red Giselle</i> © Yulia Kudryashova
Eifman Ballet in Red Giselle
© Yulia Kudryashova
I first saw Red Giselle as a student in NYC. Back then, the work had made lasting impression on me for the quality of the dancing and the novel use the ballet movement vocabulary to convey intense emotions. Now, I can also appreciate its richness at different levels. Eifman’s skilful choreography is sustained by a skilful set designed by Vyacheslav Okunev that allows for the many transitions of the story. The work contains some memorable scenes as for example the resignation of the migrants walking on the slope to enter a ship, on the same slope in a previous scene the anti-revolutionaries were beaten in slow motion by the KGB agents of Spessivtseva’s husband or Spessivtseva in the asylum imprisoned behind the glass of what looks like a gigantic greenhouse. In her new life she is seen taking part in a wild swing party in a wonderful art deco interior. But above all the space can flip from being the place of the action or from depicting a situation to the same stage seen from the back in the dance within the dance scene. The changes occur so fast that at times it is difficult to differentiate reality from her fantasy. The technical wizardry is paired with high quality dancing offered by the dancers of the Eifman Ballet. Carefully executed and perfectly synchronised group scenes left space for the breathtaking almost acrobatic duet sequences. Maria Abashova with her great plasticity is a wonderfully tragic Spessivtseva often thrown around as a broken doll by a superbly savage Igor Subbotin in a disquieting black leather coat, as her husband. Oleg Markov makes an elegant, adoring teacher and Oleg Gabysshev a splendidly heartbreaking and then heartbroken dance partner. An unusually rhythmical clapping accompanied the standing ovation at the end.

Before coming to see Red Gisele, I had never realized how many Russian live in Berlin. Clearly inspired by Diaghilev’s venture, La Saison Russe’s mission is to present Russian art and artists in Europe. Still, the majority of the audience at the event was Russian which is a pity as not much is seen from the country in Berlin, at least for dance, and the Eifman Ballet is surely a good very enjoyable introduction to Russian dance, and a sleek and elegant way of escaping the omnipresent football whilst still getting some Russian flavour.