Up & Down

Choreography Boris Eifman, music George Gershwin, Franz Schubert, Alban Berg
Eifman Ballet of St Petersburg
London Coliseum

Up & Down by Eifman Ballet Credit: Evgeny Matveev
Oleg Gabyshev as Dick Diver and Lyubov Andreyeva as Nicole Warren in Eifman Ballet's Up & Down Credit: Evgeny Matveev
Lyubov Andreyeva as Nicole Warren, Igor Subbotin as Tommy, and Company in Eifman Ballet's Up & Down Credit: Evgeny Matveev
Lyubov Andreyeva as Nicole Warren, Dmitry Fisher as Nicole's Father, and Oleg Gabyshev as Dick Diver in Eifman Ballet's Up & Down Credit: Evgeny Matveev
Maria Abashova as Rosemary Hoyt, and Company in Up & Down by Eifman Ballet Credit: Evgeny Matveev
Lyubov Andreyeva as Nicole Warren and Oleg Gabyshev as Dick Diver, plus Nicole's uncredited alter ego in Eifman Ballet's Up & Down Credit: Evgeny Matveev

Astonishing choreography, astonishing classically-trained leggy dancers, superb set and costumes, but I’d ditch that title. Up & Down, does it ring any bells?

No, it’s too generic: life’s ups and downs, its highs and lows, its joys and nightmares, its vicissitudes perhaps, but here it is specifically F Scott Fitzgerald’s highly-strung 1934 Tender Is The Night that’s being de- and re-constructed to George Gershwin’s melodies with some Schubert and Alban Berg thrown in for dramatic colour, albeit in recorded sound.

It is awash with melodramatic colour: exuberant musical theatre hoofing, the glitzy Jazz Age, high life on East and West coast and the French Riviera, and the low in the asylum, where psychiatrist Dick, Dr Coppelius and magician in one, becomes infatuated with a wealthy socialite, the schizophrenic Nicole. And the demons in her mental closet: the controlling incestuous father, the dead mother (in a bentwood rocking chair she could be Whistler’s Mother or Hitchcock’s Mrs Bates).

Whiffs of Hollywood movies insinuate covertly and overtly: there’s a kitschy number when Dick is watching movie star Rosemary on set filming Caesar and Cleopatra (Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh made it in 1945) and at its première. I do worry about health and safety when Cleopatra imperiously flings Caesar’s sword aside. Russians do nothing by halves. The melodrama is all. And the sexy bling.

Olga Shaishmelashvili’s costumes are to die for: slinky gowns, diamonds, and the beach costumes in apricot, plum, cerise, blueberry, lemon and lime make a stunning stage picture that Diaghilev would have been proud of. At the other extreme are asylum straitjackets and bandages, its One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest / Peter Weiss Marat/Sade grotesque inmates (‘the suicide’ looks like Gene Wilder) a caricature of mental despair, their psychoses manifest.

There’s something desperately Gogolian about them. Or Dostoyevskian. Eifman, of course, excels at danced psychological drama. His dancers have to be actors, too. His choreography asks a lot of them: complex physical entanglements, extraordinary lifts, silent silver screen emoting, stamina and high extensions.

Dick Diver of the healing hands falls in love, marries Nicole Warren, has an affair with the actress, and falls apart; he ends up a patient in his own clinic. Nicole has an affair with admirer Tommy, but family money, her cross to bear and her cure-all, keeps her afloat. Not quite Tender is the Night but close enough.

Making for a rollercoaster ride, Down scenes are interlaced with Up scenes, which is where the corps de ballet come into their own in snazzy speakeasy, cabaret and street West Side Story-style numbers. My companion loved the upbeat; I preferred the down.

In solos, Oleg Gabyshev with his dark-ringed eyes (he has that Anthony Perkins Psycho look), precise hand gestures and sleek physique is remarkable as Dick, but Lyubov Andreyeva is even more remarkable as Nicole; together they are dynamite. In trio with softly agile Dmitry Fisher as the obsessive villain father in black sombrero and suit, they are a tightly-knit cat’s cradle.

There are stirring push-and-pull pas de trois for Dick, Nicole and her split personality (no credit for her); Maria Abashova’s Rosemary is a slinky scene-stealing seductress aware of her own magnetism; and Igor Subbotin strikingly upright and correct in his posture as Tommy.

An electrifying evening, even if I’d have preferred more gloom to dim the bright lights of Broadway, but that’s a personal preference for more of the personal. The constant need for up, up, up got me down even though the music had me rushing to Gershwin when I got home.

A kaleidoscopic patchwork of dance to a medley of music that underlines each scene—Alban Berg for the internal drama naturally—two hours of skilled performance from a troupe unique in Russia today. Since 2013, they have their own new building, the Boris Eifman Dance Academy, in St Petersburg and there are plans for another one, the Boris Eifman Dance Palace, in the near future. The man certainly thinks big.

Some call him ‘philosopher choreographer’; Eifman defines his work as ‘psychological ballet’. Apparently, one of the world’s largest non-classical ballet companies—they dance in soft shoes not pointe—Eifman Ballet, formerly the Leningrad New Ballet, was established by its artistic director Boris Eifman some forty years ago. This is my first experience of them—I can’t think why I ever missed them before. Though too much of them could be an overdose.

Zinovy Margolin’s sets impressively channel the hedonistic period between the wars with his neon-lit Bauhaus and art deco designs, augmented by lighting design from Gleb Filshtinsky and Boris Eifman himself. I came across an Up & Down flyer in Monte Carlo—where it must have gone down a treat—this summer when visiting a Francis Bacon exhibition. Now that’s serendipity.

Reviewer: Vera Liber