A New Low for City Ballet: Eifman’s Odious Homage

Boris Eifman’s Musagète may not be the worst ballet ever put on by New York City Ballet-the last 20 years have offered it lots of competition-but its premiere last Friday was without question the lowest point in the history of the company (and I’ve been following its fortunes since the beginning, in 1948). Forget the fact that Eifman is unmusical and vulgar, and that his dance-dramas are overwrought exercises in hysteria; these things can come as no surprise to anyone who, lured by the hyperbole of the daily press, has attended his psychosexual assaults on the great ballerina Olga Spessivtseva ( Red Giselle ), Dostoevsky’s famous brothers ( The Karamazovs ), Tchaikovsky ( Tchaikovsky ) et al. In fact, Musagète is comparatively tame compared to those flights of high garishness-no dry ice, no flashing red lights; no suicides, no rapes. The only rape was of the memory of George Balanchine, whose centenary Musagète was commissioned to celebrate.

Was it naïveté or deliberate effrontery that led Eifman to choose as his subject Balanchine himself? He writes in a program note, “This ballet is dedicated to George Balanchine. It is an expression of my admiration of him …. It is not a biographical ballet, but there is the personality of the choreographer …. I was absorbed in the world of Balanchine’s ballets and, fascinated by the personality of the choreographer, was unable to free myself from this spell.” It’s all nonsense: The subject of an Eifman ballet is inevitably the Anguish of the Tormented Artist-and it doesn’t take much stretch of the imagination to figure out who that tormented artist really is. (Oddly, in person Eifman emits a cherubic, untormented sweetness.) As for Balanchine, in real life there was never a less anguished artist; he just got down to whatever job was at hand and did the necessary, with a total absence of agony or ecstasy.

Eifman’s Balanchine suffers, suffers, suffers. He’s impersonated by the affectless Robert Tewsley, who is new to the company and possibly unaware of the presumption involved. We see him in a white polo shirt and black pants. He’s at the end of his rope, or his tether, or his life, looking back. There’s a lot of business with a straight-backed chair-he’s either sitting in it (a wheelchair? a hospital chair?) or being pushed around in it by a grim attendant, or lying on the floor and manipulating it with his foot. Chair play is replaced by cat play: Wendy Whelan is Mourka, the cat famously owned by Balanchine and his wife Tanaquil LeClercq (she published a book about Mourka). There are a few ingenious moments in the man-cat duet-the only bearable moments in the proceedings. Whelan, a dancer (and person) of integrity, has been quoted as saying she was relieved to be playing a cat rather than any of the people represented in this ballet, and how right she was!

There’s a large corps who dart in and out in various changes of costume, but everything they do is generic and pointless. Balanchine-Tewsley thrashes around in distress-arching his back, collapsing to the floor. And then we’re shown LeClercq herself, in the person of Alexandra Ansanelli, who must be aware of the mortifying position Eifman and the company have put her in.

LeClercq, a much-loved dancer of incomparable wit, style and glamour, contracted polio in Copenhagen, in 1956, while the company was on tour. At first it didn’t seem that she would survive; eventually she recovered, but was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Balanchine essentially abandoned the company for a year, to tend to her at home. To dramatize this horrible and traumatic episode involving two people who were as intensely private and dignified as LeClercq and Balanchine, to show LeClercq suddenly staggering and lurching around the stage and then being dragged off on a long piece of black cloth, and to do this on the stage of Balanchine’s own theater, under the auspices of his own company, and with the excuse of celebrating him, can only be described as disgusting. People in the audience whom I recognized as old Balanchine hands were gasping in disbelief; one man was murmuring, “Oh no!” I found it as painful a moment as I’ve ever spent in the theater.

But that was not all. We had yet to survive watching Maria Kowroski impersonate Suzanne Farrell and, with Tewsley, act out the complicated relationship between Farrell and Balanchine. Again, the Artist in Torment, but by this time who could care? The worst had already happened. It should be noted, though, that although Kowroski bears a certain physical resemblance to Farrell, and appears to advantage in certain Farrell roles, when she attempted to be Farrell, the disparity between her real but unformed talent and Farrell’s genius was all too blatantly underlined.

An even greater disparity was revealed when Eifman chose to end his ballet with a rip-off-sorry, a pastiche-sorry, an homage-to Balanchine’s Theme and Variations , itself a tribute to Balanchine’s great predecessor Marius Petipa. (Get it? The torch is passed down from Petipa to Balanchine to Eifman.) Here Eifman attempts a classical ballet, tutus and all, that despite its pilferings from Theme , and its pathetic allusions to other Balanchine formal works (the last moments of Symphony in C , for instance), makes it clear that he has no talent whatsoever for serious ballet. He lacks musicality, he lacks vocabulary, and he lacks any sense of how to deploy groups of dancers in stage space. You don’t get to be a Balanchine by sampling his work, as Eifman does here and, indeed, throughout Musagète : If what was going on wasn’t so offensive, you could amuse yourself by checking off the quotations from Apollo , Serenade , Agon , etc.

Assuming Eifman were capable of being humiliated, he surely would’ve been by the cosmically disastrous scheduling of his piece directly after Theme and Variations itself. It would be nice to think that the pairing was a comment on Eifman’s talent by the head of the company, Peter Martins, who is, I believe, quite capable of this kind of mischief, but the likelihood is that the program was conceived well before City Ballet knew that Eifman planned to end Musagète with his variation on Theme and Variations . The larger question is why Martins brought this disgrace upon himself and the company he runs.

However one may disagree with many of his choices, and regret the diminution of his own considerable talent, he is a savvy and serious figure-he certainly knew what he was getting when he hired Eifman. When the commission was announced, there was a lot of speculation about Martins’ motives: an attempt to attract the Russian émigré audience that, with its cigarettes and cell phones, flocks to the City Center to applaud the Eifman seasons there? An attempt to flatter The New York Times , which is so greatly responsible for his success?

I wish it were that simple. But for Peter Martins to choose to celebrate George Balanchine with a choreographer so much his polar opposite, and with a work that would have wounded him to the heart, goes beyond opportunism or cynicism. To encourage-even to allow-the appearance of Musagète on the stage of the State Theatre suggests an unconscious impulse of parricide or regicide-or both. Sophocles knew what he was writing about in Oedipus Rex , and Freud understood him perfectly.

And there was more to be discouraged about last Friday. To present Theme and Variations properly, with its fiendishly demanding central roles, City Ballet had to borrow Angel Corella from A.B.T. As I understand it, he was meant to undertake one performance, in a kind of hands-across-the-Plaza gesture of solidarity in honor of Balanchine-after all, Corella had already been dancing Theme at the Met earlier this season. He ended up doing three scheduled performances, because, I assume, with Damian Woetzel out with appendicitis, there was no one else available to fulfill the role’s daunting requirements. (I gather that Robert Tewsley’s attempt earlier in the week was a debacle.) Corella, of course, was superb-his unique combination of elegance, strength and lovability carried everything before it, though his virtuoso abilities and charm tended to distract from Miranda Weese’s admirable if unthrilling account of the ballerina role.

But to those of who remember the palmy days of Jacques d’Amboise and Edward Villella, then of Peter Martins and Helgi Tomasson, this absence of major male talent is very disturbing. The corps is filled with energetic and eager young guys, but as of now, no one of them is looking like a polished classical dancer. Why this should be, when A.B.T. is bursting with male talent, is a mystery. That it is so helps to explain why A.B.T.’s Balanchine program earlier this season was so successful: Theme , Mozartiana , Ballet Imperial require first-level male dancers as well as ballerinas. That Gillian Murphy and Michelle Wiles would triumph in the latter comes as no surprise; that Herman Cornejo would give the best performance I’ve ever seen of the gigue in Mozartiana is both a tribute to his extraordinary skills and a reproach to City Ballet, though after Musagète , any further reproach seems redundant.