Editor's Note: Read this review of The Pygmalion Effect. This profiles an earlier performance in Chicago.
June 07 at 8:00 pm
June 08 at 2:00 pm & 8:00 pm
June 09 at 2:00 pm
Running time is two hours with one intermission.
New York City Center
If there’s any greater way to control a person than shaping how they speak, it’s by shaping their body. That’s the basic idea behind Boris Eifman’s The Pygmalion Effect, the ballet adaptation from George Bernard Shaw now being seen at the Auditorium Theatre for the first time in North America. Set to the cheery, always energetic music of the Strauss brothers, Eifman reimagines the story as that of a dancer and the girl he makes his pet project. Although heavy themes lurk behind every movement, the show is also thrilling and funny, told through the enviable dexterity of the Eifman Ballet of Saint Petersburg’s dancers.
Privileged and Stigmatized Movement Vocabularies
The dance opens with an overlay of two worlds. Behind a glass wall, the ballroom dancers in an academy practice their courtly art. Before it, Gala and her father, Holmes, scrounge for survival, lurching around like frogs or apes. Her movements are graceful, but the way a clown’s can be. A natural performer, she commands the attention of a crowd with humor and the sort of skilled movements that reference sexuality in a way higher-class people call “crude.” One night, after observing a ballroom dance competition, she saves a lead dancer, Leon, from muggers, and he decides to mentor her. This arouses jealously among the other performers and Leon himself becomes angry when Gala doesn’t adopt the trappings of her new social sphere as quickly or completely as he would like her to.
Leon doesn’t put his pants on one leg at a time; he jumps right into them. Played on opening night by Oleg Gabyshev and on the 19th by Sergey Volobuev, his movements are accented with swaggering flourishes. It’s easy in this adaptation to understand why Gala is so enamored of what he represents that she looks past the actual person. As for her (Lyubov Andreyeva at opening, Marianna Chebykina on the 19th), Gala is a ball of sunshine, wearing an impish grin as she gambols around the stage. Johann Strauss the Son’s operetta music seems to flow from her acrobatics. At first, Leon attempts to train her in the way a ringmaster would tame a lion, he later resorts to coaching her like a boxer.
Eifman Ballet of Saint Petersburg Emphasizes Character
Eifman’s choreography for the supporting cast is no less communicative of their psychology. His horde of skid row urchins demonstrate the frustrations and pride of the hustler’s life long before making any literal displays of it. The muggers creep and stretch like a frenzied octopus. Their counterparts among the ballroom dancers whirl off-kilter in their billowing red dresses like fireflies. Chief among Gala’s rivals is Tea (Alina Petrovskaya/Yulia Stolyarchuk), whose long, sharply cutting limbs dominate the stage wherever she leaps to. And dogging Gala’s footsteps is her father, Holmes (Dmitry Fisher/Igor Polyakov), an amusing brute whose shuffling around the slums owes as much to Thénardier as Alfred Doolittle. Eifman’s representation of Holmes’s experiment with respectability is the comedic highpoint of a performance filled with physical riffs on Strauss’s waltzes.
A Pax de Deux Pivot to Mozart
The Eifman team’s design elements are as integral to the story as the music and dance. Zinovy Margolin’s sets contrast Leon’s swanky world with Gala’s gritty one, but with endless opportunities for them to bleed into each other. More representative of their social division are Olga Shaishmelashvili’s costumes, which are distinctive enough to each character to let us know something has gone very wrong with Gala suddenly appears in something she would never willingly wear. The one awkward note in the staging, in this writer’s view, is a late addition to Leon and Gala’s conflict that shows the true nature of their partnership but seems like something from a different genre. But the staging recovers when, for the final moment, Eifman switches music from Strauss to Mozart and closes with melancholy for his heroine’s costly victory.
Oleg Gabyshev, Lyubov Andreyeva, Alina Petrovskaya, Dmitry Fisher, Lilia Lishchuk, Igor Subbotin, Sergey Volobuev, Marianna Chebykina, Yulia Stolyarchuk, Igor Polyakov, Polina Pavlenko
Boris Eifman, Johann Strauss the Son, Josef Strauss, Eduard Strauss, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Zinovy Margolin, Olga Shaishmelashvili, Alexander Sivaev