The Inevitable, Awful Eifman Drags Us Back to the 1920’s

This shouldn’t take long. The new Boris Eifman ballet, Who’s Who , is just as ghastly as previous Eifman ballets, but instead of overwrought, like most of his work- Red Giselle , The Karamazovs , Tchaikovsky , Russian Hamlet -it’s underwrought. Since Eifman has a tiny (and ugly) dance vocabulary, and is completely unresponsive to music, the only thing that differentiates one of his pieces from another is the Concept that triggers it. The works I’ve mentioned above have story lines that make some kind of demented narrative sense, however vulgar. Who’s Who , a pale gloss on Some Like It Hot , makes no sense at all.

This may be because the ostensible plot (two Russian male dancers arrive in America in the 1920’s, are on the run from thugs-who can tell why?-and hop into drag, whereupon one of them falls in love with a girl) is out of sync with whatever minimal feeling the ballet manages to project. This isn’t the story of Alex and Max frustratedly panting after Sugar (I mean Lynn), but of Alex and Max panting after each other while having a great time swanning around in their skirts and blouses and wigs. Lynn is completely irrelevant-there’s not a spark of erotic interest between her and Alex-but when Alex breaks the news to Max that he’s going into the closet, it’s oy vey time. (We can tell when Eifman’s characters are suffering because that’s when they arch their backs.)

Eifman is always happiest when he’s displaying a bare male torso, and in Who’s Who he gets to display two of them. I’d be happy for him (and for us) if he had come up with something interesting for his unwrapped boychiks to do, but all we get is homoerotic exhibitionism. Add to this the fact that most of his women are frighteningly thin and hard-some of them almost look like men in drag-and you’re up against real gender confusion. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon were two guys trapped in dresses and horny for you-know-who. The Alex and Max I saw were two narcissistic boys pretending to like girls while really enjoying being girls. You could say that the plot of Who’s Who amounts to Boy Meets Boy, Boy Loses Boy, Boy Gets Girl.

There are critics who argue that Boris Eifman is “creative” and “inventive.” This time round, his creativity consists of using jazz and swing music from the 20’s onwards, plus a snatch of Rachmaninoff and even-we’re spared nothing-Barber’s Adagio for Strings . How to explain why a story set in the 20’s should feature popular music from decades later? But it hardly matters, because Eifman, for all the research he claims to have done, hasn’t the slightest understanding of American popular dance; he may be using Ellington and Strayhorn and Basie and Brubeck and Prima and Kenton, but the steps he has set to them are pastiche of pastiche of pastiche. Nor are his dancers, accustomed to delirious melodrama, comfortable with the Charleston and the chorus line-Lynn trying to tap is almost too painful to watch. On the other hand, when she laces on a pair of ballet slippers and darts around on pointe, as if she were a real classical ballerina, she’s equally out of her depth. (For a while, she wears her pointe shoes on her hands -perhaps a first, and let’s hope a last.)

Some questions:

Why does Who’s Who begin with immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, with their tied-up parcels and their babushkas and their hokey yearning to be free, when the immigrant theme is more or less dropped? (Where’s Eifman’s dramaturge?)

Why is there a madcap Jewish wedding in Act II, complete with chuppah and yarmulkes, when the story has no Jewish elements? (Where’s his rabbi?)

Why are Eifman’s men either unmanned or brutal and his women either tormented or degraded? (Where’s his analyst?)

Why do knowledgeable dance reviewers consistently praise this mishmash of misguided ambition and talentless posturing? (Where’s their conscience?)

I do understand why Eifman ends with what he believes, in his delusion, to be a Balanchine finale (that’s where the Rachmaninoff comes in): He sees himself as the Future, marrying Sovietski dance-drama with classical ballet. He’s going to be the Balanchine of the 21st century-after all, they both come from St. Petersburg. But, alas, his one modest talent isn’t for choreography, it’s for special effects; they could use him at Cirque du Soleil. His dancers are flashy and without substance, his ideas are derivative and tawdry. Nevertheless, the City Center has made him an annual attraction, and his audience-largely composed of Russian émigrés-eats it up. How they ovate when he prances onstage for a curtain call sporting his cunning beard and cherubic smile! Stand by for next year. The Inevitable, Awful Eifman Drags Us Back to the 1920’s