Two Choreographers at Work: Pinocchio’s Nose and Old Glory

Why is the one thing we remember about Pinocchio that his nose grows longer whenever he tells a lie? The telltale nose plays a very minor role in the wonderful Disney version of 1940, which is probably how most Americans know Pinocchio, and it isn’t even crucial in Carlo Collodi’s original children’s tale, first translated into English in 1892. Can it be that young boys make some subliminal connection to another long, thin appurtenance of theirs that grows and shrinks willy-nilly? For whatever reason, our Pinocchio is defined by his lies and his nose. Not so Boris Eifman’s. In his 1989 ballet, recently seen in New York for the first time, the nose never budges.

It’s true, as my son remarked to me after the first act, that you can’t show a nose growing in a ballet. But Mr. Eifman doesn’t need to. The Collodi-Disney Pinocchio is about moral and spiritual growth: The little wooden puppet can only become a “real” boy when he discovers his own goodness, bravery and generous heart; he has to learn who he is and what humanity is, and that giveaway nose is one measure of his progress. Mr. Eifman is out for bigger game. His Pinocchio is yet another reworking of his favorite subject: Good vs. Evil. At the end, the little guy is the same cute buggins he always was, well-meaning and courageous, just a little naïve and misguided. His only problem has been survival; he didn’t have to grow. In fact, although Pinocchio is almost never offstage and is rarely still, the real action lies in the struggle between the Evil Magician (an Eifman invention) and the Good Fairy. And it’s no coincidence that the evil one is named Karabas and that the fairy graciously bourrées all over the place: think of The Sleeping Beauty and the wicked Carabosse, who goes head-to-head with the bourréeing Lilac Fairy. Even the music, based on Offenbach, offers connections to Tchaikovsky.

The Eifman Pinocchio is a crowd-pleaser. As it samples its way through Beauty , Coppélia , the can-can, even Petrushka , it maintains its energy level, comes up with happy stage effects (a charming underwater set, giant squid and all; luminous paint suddenly gleaming from costumes; intricate weavings of dancers attached to ropes), and gives the indefatigable and appealing Yevgeny Likhanov a virtuoso role as its puppet hero. The corps is kept frantically busy in its various guises-villagers, Gypsies, pirates, fish, even donkeys. (In this version, the Evil Magician turns people into robotic donkeys in his determination to rule the world. Pinocchio has morphed into Metropolis .) As usual with Eifman, the men, both principals and corps, stand out more than the women, although there’s a pretty girl for every hunky boy. But all the changes of costume can’t disguise the thinness of Pinocchio ‘s dance vocabulary. Flopping to the ground at any provocation, being flung upside-down into waiting arms, crawling between legs, swirling into bravura lifts. Subtlety has no place in the overwrought Eifman universe.

I missed his other new offering, Don Quixote , but since even The New York Times , which has regularly crushed Mr. Eifman to its bosom, turned on it, I can’t pretend I’m sorry. I did catch Don Juan and Molière , which is all about Creativity. (Every Eifman piece has a Concept.) It opens with Molière flouncing and fluttering his quill as he struggles to write Don Juan and ends with the playwright’s death; he’s been overcome by the agony of the artist. (In case you were worried, Mr. Eifman himself, at his nightly curtain calls, looks as healthy and happy as ever.)

And then there was The Karamazovs , quintessential Eifman, since Dostoyevsky’s novel is a natural for Mr. Eifman’s favorite emotional temperature-feverish. His signature flashing red lights are back, and clanging bells, and crotch lifts, and, yes, we get to see the monk Alyosha (the talented and androgynously pretty Igor Markov) with his torso bared, and the tormented brothers rush heroically across the stage with their chests out, their heads back, their arms thrust upward in anguish. It’s phantasmagoria. It’s Cirque du Soleil. It’s relentlessly sexual without being at all erotic. And it’s Philosophical: Who but Mr. Eifman would have passages from the novel’s great Grand Inquisitor scene intoned over a loudspeaker while dancers convulse to the Overture to Tannhäuser ? But in this piece, the Concept is worked out with total conviction; the emptiness at least is wholehearted.

It’s all a far cry from what’s happening down at the Joyce, where Eliot Feld’s Ballet Tech is in the midst of its annual five-week season. This company is somehow a thing apart from the rest of the dance scene; with its own audience and its own aesthetic, it offers a kind of alternative dance reality. The main event this season has been Mr. Feld’s Lincoln Portrait , to Aaron Copland, with a text by the composer. The piece is a throwback to a certain kind of inflated populist Americana of the 30’s and 40’s. The high rhetoric of the music is matched by the high rhetoric of the text-I heard it recited by Carmen De Lavallade, who punched out every word as if they were all capitalized. “And This Is What He Said: This Is What Abe Lincoln Said: He Said …. ” (Remember the Norman Corwin patriotic radio dramas of the period?) Meanwhile, 40-odd Americans are marching back and forth across the stage in both period and contemporary costumes. Here we all are, We the People: the hard-hat, the cowboy, the Jew with a tallis , the sailor boy, the businessman, the biddies, the tots, the young lovers. And do we join hands in loving brotherhood? We do. And when a dozen or so dancers in hideously unflattering blue unitards come prancing out, do they throw in a touch of square dance? Yup. And does a young woman rush onstage and dart through the throng with Old Glory billowing out behind her? I’m afraid so.

At the program I saw, there was also a 1990 work, Contra Pose , built on repeated motifs (crossed arms, flicking hands), but with no point of view and no discernible relationship to its music by C.P.E. Bach. Yo Johann , to the senior Bach-cute title, huh?-is for two men, and serves up a predictable homoerotic duet before it gets down to some good jokes. As for Pacific Dances , amusingly set to Hawaiian slack-key guitar music, it would have been twice as much fun at half the length. Nine undulating girls in white perform ingenious maneuvers with huge, billowing white silk dropcloths. Patricia Tuthill, who has two solos, is an attractively musical dancer, but I have to report that most of the company seems to me stolid. (Another exception is Jassen Virolas, who stands out for his forceful and expansive attack.)

Eliot Feld is a fascinating phenomenon. He’s fluent and he’s artistically ambitious, but there’s no center to his work, no identifying personality. Whereas Boris Eifman’s conceptual extravaganzas suggest a massive egotism untroubled by issues of taste (he’s a product of the Soviet aesthetic, after all), Mr. Feld seems detached. He gamely tries to give us something different every time, but what does he believe in? Eifman or Feld, take your pick: hollow grandiosity or sterile cleverness.

Two Choreographers at Work: Pinocchio’s Nose and Old Glory