In the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg’s production of TCHAIKOVSKY, PRO ET CONTRA, choreographer Boris Eifman examines how Tchaikovsky’s internal struggles inspired his music. It is a beautiful work, but not without flaws. An incredible cast, astonishing sets by Zinovy Margolin, gorgeous costumes by Olga Shaishmelashvili and Vyacheslav Okunev, lighting by Alexander Sivaev and Boris Eifman take the audience deep into the composer’s tortured imagination. The emotional angst is thick at times and during Act I the women playing to the audience with emotive smiles seem very much out of character. Fortunately, this dissipates in Act II. I longed, also, for a live orchestra to perform Tchaikovsky’s beautiful music.

Eifman Ballet in <i>Tchaikovsky Pro et Contra</i> © Evgeny Matveev
Eifman Ballet in Tchaikovsky Pro et Contra
© Evgeny Matveev

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a Russian, late-romantic era composer who is best known in the dance world for his music for Swan Lake, Eugene Onegin, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker. Eifman opens with Tchaikovsky (Oleg Gabyshev) writhing in his death bed, tormented by his past. Eifman introduces Tchaikovsky’s alter ego (Sergey Volobuev) through a powerful duet between the two men dressed in long, white night shirts. The bed becomes a major focal point as other ghosts from his past magically appear from beneath it and the bed sheet.

The ballet shifts to Tchaikovsky’s early life and the young composer trying to fit into the world around him. There’s a bridge upstage and twelve couples dancing; the women carrying opened umbrellas. Tchaikovsky meets the beautiful Antonina Milyukova (Lyubov Andreyeva), who vies for his attention, but the composer is consumed by his inner demons and brushes her off. One of Eifman’s choreographic strengths in this ballet, is how he uses Tchaikovsky’s personal relationships to transform into scenes from his ballets. His conflicts with Antonina become inspiration for his ballet Swan Lake. His alter ego becomes Von Rothbart and, in a twist of characters, the swans protect Tchaikovsky from Antonina.  He meets, and is attracted to a handsome young prince (Dmitry Krylov), but the man goes off with a pretty woman (Polina Petrova). This exchange morphs into The Nutcracker ballet where Drosselmeyer (his alter ego) turns the young soldier into a wooden nutcracker and his friend becomes the ballet’s young Clara. From another period in Tchaikovsky’s life, Eifman melts an encounter into the visualization of scenes from the ballet Eugene Onegin.

Act I concludes with Tchaikovsky's and Antonina's wedding. The ceremony begins joyously, but Antonina’s happiness quickly turns into sorrow when she realizes how tormented her husband is. There’s a beautiful pas de deux between the young couple in which Antonina’s veil becomes a trap and Tchaikovsky’s alter ego rapidly destroys any delusions she had about Tchaikovsky’s feelings for her. There’s a dynamic wedding night scene in which their spinning bed becomes an instrument of tragedy, and as the curtain falls on Act I, cheers of bravo erupt from the Los Angeles audience.

Eifman Ballet in <i>Tchaikovsky Pro et Contra</i> © Evgeny Matveev
Eifman Ballet in Tchaikovsky Pro et Contra
© Evgeny Matveev

Life for Tchaikovsky turns even darker in Act II. Tchaikovsky struggles with his public persona and his sudden fame is both a blessing and a curse. The wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck (Maria Abashova) becomes his benefactor and his muse. Tchaikovsky is haunted by her influence, which he uses as inspiration for his successful ballet Queen of Spades. During a wonderful scene, the queen, dressed as a fortune teller, predicts Tchaikovsky’s death with the ace of spades. Abashova is outstanding as the Queen of Spades and the scene ends with an amazing men’s section performed on and around a green oval shaped card table.  The role of the Joker is performed with great skill by Dmitry Krylov.

A haunting duet takes place in front of a white thin roped curtain.  Tchaikovsky and Antonina, who is ravaged with disease, make use of a long piece of gauze-like material to act out their love/hate relationship. Tchaikovsky visualizes murdering Antonina by strangling her with the material, but her ghost simply fades away. The ballet returns to Tchaikovsky’s death bed and his final moments. He dances one last duet with his alter ego and relief comes through his passing, setting free his alter ego. The staging for Tchaikovsky’s funeral is quite brilliant. With an extraordinary use of color contrasts, his mourners dressed in all black, use the green oval table and a dark gray sheet to bury Tchaikovsky and to create his headstone. It is a wonderful piece of theater magic!

Eifman’s TCHAIKOVSKY, PRO ET CONTRA is visually stunning, the dancing is outstanding and the role of Tchaikovsky is an emotional tour de force performed superbly by Gabyshev. Its shortfall lies in Eifman’s inability to choreograph strong female roles. The duets and corps work for the men are inventive and powerful, but their female counterparts fade away into stereotypical support roles. It is, however, a beautiful work.