The Pygmalion Effect @ The Auditorium Theatre

3 Stars out of 4

If you are heading off to catch some direct-from-Russia ballet, now a staple on the Auditorium Theatre dance season, don’t go to the Eifman Ballet expecting starched classicism and some Petipa museum pieces. Long time maverick Boris Eifman creates new takes on old stories: and he does like story ballets. This year, he has brought The Pygmalion Effect to Chicago. Eifman’s libretto is #metoo meets Shaw and rejects Lerner and Loewe, with its own twist. Here the dancing is superb, the emotions are on view,  portrayed with a combination of repeating leitmotif steps as well as facial expressions that seem Comedia del Arte- like, even as a dark tale is told.

In this telling, Gala, danced by chameleon Lyobov Andreyeva , is the scrappy street urchin, who is exploited by her dad, Holmes, danced by Dmitry Fisher.   Gala is enthralled by the famous ballroom dancer Leon (Oleg Gabyshev who the audience first meets in the shower!)  Everyone is in love with Leon, from his champion partner Tea (danced by the magnificent Alina Perovskaya) to his housekeeper Greta, (the stern and funny Lilia Lishchuk).  Gala rescues Leon from an attack and it appears her father sells her to him—wherein Leon bets his dance Coach (the statuesque yuppie Igor Subbotin) that he can turn her into a star.  Star she becomes: but this is not a happy story and she ends up on a bench dreaming of better times.  The tale is not always easy to follow: interpreting the sudden appearance of a Wim Wenders Angel in the middle of the action was a delightful diversion but did not help to unpack the manipulations and psychological twists and turns of the various players.  There are some very disturbing intimations: not only did it appear that Gala was sold to Leon but Leon attaches what only could be described as an electroshock therapy device to her to get her to comply and dance the way he desires. And he abandons her at the end. Not a shining example of female empowerment despite the strength and athleticism of the women on stage.

At a certain point, one stops trying to make meaning from this fast moving ballet (or stops getting upset at the misogyny of the plot),  and settles in to enjoy the eye candy.   Andreyeva’s transformation from street to society is wondrous and complete. Eifman clearly selects dancers that have a type much as Balanchine did: leggy, athletic, versatile, able to defy gravity and achieve impossible flexibility at breakneck pace. And this group forms a stunningly gorgeous ensemble.  This is virtuosic dancing by any measure and it is pure joy to witness.It accepts then moves past high powered classical forms and swallows modern technique whole spitting out a new kind of ballet dancing that is exhilarating to observe.

The costumes by  Olga Shaishmelashivlli are runway ready and character revealing. Alexander Sivaev and Eifman have utilized lighting to create a magical space for the story to play out.  I have become so accustomed to Chicago ballet companies using live musicians that the all the Strausses and a bit of Mozart canned score was a bit jarring but the choice of pieces was perfect for this story. Say what you want about the political situation between our two countries: the Russians can dance. And we need to watch them when they do.

The Auditorium Theatre presented the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg in The Pygmalion Effect  from May 17 to 19th 2019. For more information and to subscribe to next year’s season that will include a Bolshoi visit go to https://www.auditoriumtheatre.org/