There’s something so antithetical about dance and sculpture. One is an exercise in the static, an artform that strives to communicate as much as possible through a singular snapshot; the other, intrinsically less restricted in time and space, aims to deliver meaning through motion.
In Rodin, Eifman Ballet Saint Petersburg tries, brutishly, to unite the two. The show takes the form of a loose biography of Auguste Rodin, the French sculptor, and his model and lover, Camille Claudel. The pair had a charged and turbulent relationship, with Claudel playing a key part in her partner’s commissions and shaping his artwork in a way that made her far more than a passive model. Playing the parts of lover, advisor and muse, Camille’s influence on the renowned artist was varied and multifaceted.
Yet, despite this complexity, it seems choreographer Boris Eifman has no such difficulty setting his female lead in stone. Animated by the implausible contortions of soloist Aigerim Beketayeva, Claudel, like all the female characters in this piece, is granted very little in the way of autonomy. Indeed, Beketayeva’s elaborate twists can be enough to inspire the jaw to drop, but her graceful elasticity communicates none of the wrought tensions and organic drives that are evident Rodin’s work – and does little to sculpt an impression of Claudel as an artist in her own right.
The attempts at comedy also fail to provide that necessary human touch. Set within a mental clinic populated with ruffled sleeping cap-wearing patients, the chorus scenes show as much sensitivity towards mental health as your average Victorian shrink. Springing from West Side Story-inspired silhouettes, the male company sport neckerchiefs, artists’ mallets, Cockney walks and – radically – smiles. Unfortunately, riddled with slapstick silliness, they too miss the humorous by a long stretch.
The choreography here plays too much on the malleability of Claudel, romanticising the position of muse in a way that should frustrate all feminists. Eifman has given an all too literal reading of his subject matter, teasing the flawed relationship between the media of dance and sculpture. Dmitry Fisher’s Rodin pulls tangled masses of bodies into shape and spins his various muses on a potter’s wheel. A model, posed by Rodin, struggles to untangle her limbs. Claudel is manipulated by a chorus of men but her feet remain latched onto a block, and Rodin chips away at the same old jokes.
The comedic elements of this show also sit uncomfortably with the music, a tired megamix of classics that definitely hasn’t tangled its tongue within its cheek. As familiar pieces by Camille Saint-Saëns and Maurice Ravel earnestly accompany gimmicky portrayals of romance and art, Disney’s Fantasia is brought to mind. The relentless nature of the swooping violins highlights the work’s laughable melodrama. Thankfully, Leonid Eremin’s sound production is a little more fitting. As Beketayeva mimes a raw, existential scream under two accusatory spotlights, digital beeps sprinkled with orchestral flourishes map a nightmarish soundscape that subtly undermines Eifman’s psychological ambitions.
Through Eifman’s work Rodin has been translated into a muse, but his artistry and command retain their influence. Frustratingly – although a sculptor in her own right – when given this stab at immortalisation, delicate Claudel remains the muse in the most traditional sense and, despite being portrayed by the most engaging dancer of the company, her character remains shamefully underdeveloped. Reduced to flavourng Rodin’s storyline, Claudel is a sweet light thing that turns sour, desperate for her lover’s attentions. True, Eifman attempts to portray a psychological interpretation and his metaphorical insights into sculpture are clear to see; ultimately, though, little attention is payed to the biographical reality of the lovers. The muse never tips into reality, and the production forgets that there’s more to humans than psychologies.
Rodin is playing at the Coliseum until 19 April. For more information and tickets, see the English National Opera website.