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A ballet biography of the passionate, conflicted Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

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A ballet biography of the passionate, conflicted Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

by Paul Schrott on August 8, 2012 (August 8, 2012) filed under Classical Music | Stage | Comment Now
Choreographer Boris Eifman has mined a life rich in tragedy to create his ballet Tchaikovsky, which he brings to Australia next week

Russian choreographer Boris Eifman is obsessed with the music of Tchaikovsky – but if you want fluffy swans, look elsewhere. Instead of devising the nth incarnation of The Nutcracker or Swan Lake, Eifman has mined the drama of the Tchaikovsky symphonies to create a ballet biography of the composer – a life told in dance, entitled simply Tchaikovsky. According to Eifman, Tchaikovsky was an artist consumed by a conflict between his orthodox faith and his sexuality. The composer's inner torment will be played out on stages in Sydney and Melbourne next week by the touring Eifman Ballet Theatre, based in St Petersburg, who have also imported Eifman’s highly emotive take on the Tolstoy novel Anna Karenina. Australia, incidentally, is the last continent on earth (barring Antarctica) this hugely successful troupe is yet to visit. Limelight’s editor Francis Merson asked Eifman about his vision of Tchaikovsky as man and musician.

The life of a composer is an unusual subject for a ballet. Why Tchaikovsky?

I love Tchaikovsky’s music – it’s what I grew up with ­– and to date I’ve made seven ballets using his scores. But a question I’ve always been interested in was: why did a man who was so popular and well loved write such tragic music? Looking into his biography it’s easy to see that his tragedy was embedded in the depths of his psyche. He was torn between his passions, between his quite normal sexual desires as a gay man and his orthodox faith – his desire for a kind of spiritual purity he regarded as inimical to his sexuality. Only through music did he express his isolation, his tragedy, and I wanted to make this tragedy materialise as a ballet. I suppose one of my aims was to show the interesting connection between the music of Tchaikovsky, his personality and his life.

Which works of his have you chosen as illustrative?

In Tchaikovsky I used extracts from the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, as well as the Italian Capriccio and Serenade for Strings.

So no works that were actually composed for ballet?

I have never choreographed any of his ballet music. It’s just been used so much already. Delving into the symphonies or the Italian Capriccio is much more challenging for a choreographer, as there’s no balletic tradition to rely on. Who needs yet another Nutcracker?

What happens in the Eifman biography of Tchaikovsky?

Well, I wanted to show the relationship with his patron and dearest friend Nadezhda von Meck and also with his wife Antonina Miliukova – but most important of all is Tchaikovsky’s relationship with himself. The ballet contains a character who is the alter ego of Tchaikovsky – a kind of devil, representing the passion which consumed him. Tchaikovsky was a spectre; he was always stuck in between god and the devil. One the one hand, his homosexual feelings demanded satisfaction, but his religiousness didn’t allow him to express this freely. This contradiction tortured him and in the end engulfed him.

Russia is a fairly homophobic place – you only have to look at the yearly riots that take place at the gay pride marches in Moscow. Was there any backlash against your portrayal of Tchaikovsky?

Fortunately not. And I hasten to add that the point of the ballet was certainly not to tell the world that Tchaikovsky was a homosexual. That’s no secret to anyone. And there were thousands – maybe millions – of homosexuals living in Russia in Tchaikovsky’s day, but none of them wrote such tragic music. The question is how each person understands their sexuality for themselves. Tchaikovsky believed he was always in a state of sin. He didn’t think of it as just a natural thing; he thought it was a punishment from God. His tragedy lay in this vision of himself, not in the fact he was gay. So I guess you could look at Tchaikovsky as a ballet psychoanalysis of the composer.

How does his wife Antonina come across in the ballet? I’ve always felt sorry for her – she had no idea what she was getting herself into.

Of course you feel sorry for her, but on the other hand the marriage was a tragedy for Tchaikovsky too: Antonina couldn’t provide him with the normal life that he wanted. Perhaps no one could. Tchaikovsky was an extraordinarily complex man. He was a genius, but in his letters he wrote repeatedly about wanting to be like everyone else – to have kids and a family. To be a normal person. He knew he was a genius, but he also wanted to be like everyone else. Yet another contradiction.

Antonina, meanwhile, ended up in a madhouse. As did Nadezhda Von Meck. That’s the price the two most important women in Tchaikovsky’s life had to pay for their brush with genius.

How has Tchaikovsky been received around the world?

I’m very proud to say it’s been an enormous success everywhere, which is at least partly because Tchaikovsky is such a universal figure. The audience can rediscover not only the music of Tchaikovsky, but also experience his life through ballet. Australia happens to be the last continent our company hasn’t yet visited. We’re very glad to have this opportunity because we know how much Australians love ballet – and about the great traditions here, many of which were begun by Russian dancers. So we really can’t wait to perform for the Australian public.

The Eifman Ballet Theatre performs at the Capitol Theatre in Sydney on Aug 15-26 and the Regent Theatre in Melbourne on Aug 29-Sep 9. For more information go to