Following the 2012 London season, St Petersburg Eifman Ballet has returned to the Coliseum with a UK premiere. Rodin charts the lives of Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel, his muse, lover and fellow sculptor who never achieved the same level of recognition.
Company founder Boris Eifman has created a story that jumps back and forth in time, opening in the asylum where Claudel was to stay for 30 years until her death after her separation from Rodin. Thus we know her fate before we see it play out on stage.
Eifman’s vocabulary involves much folding of arms and legs through spaces, and is full of pauses as the dancers hold shapes that recall sculptures – we catch glimpses of Rodin’s works, such as the Gates of Hell, although some veer dangerously close to circus contortion acts.
There are nods to the “act ones” of 19th-century ballets here. The can-can is a raucous affair and highlights the cultural context against which Rodin and Claudel’s story is set – the men execute the huge jumps with great unity. But there are modern touches elsewhere, such as the B-boys of the studio and the mad scene in which Camille is engulfed by black silk against strobe lighting.
The first meeting between Rodin and Camille – danced on opening night by Oleg Gabyshev and Lyubov Andreyeva – is a passionate pas de deux (but must all romantic moments be accompanied by Clair de Lune?) that quickly turns eerie as he bends her into shapes with a surgical precision that is half-erotic and half-psychopathic. This is in marked contrast to the duet between Rodin and his long-time partner, Rose Beuret, during which he repeatedly throws her off lifts while she clings on.
The piece is less successful when Eifman turns to mime and more literal storytelling. There’s a fair bit of hammy acting (though this does recede in act two). And while the sculptures are intriguing, particularly the Burghers of Calais, it’s dreary watching Rodin pulling and moulding the dancers in an overlong sequence.
But the main issue is the asylum setting. The women here are disturbing caricatures – one minute children sobbing dramatically with hunched shoulders and playing with pillows, the next confidently and suggestively gyrating their hips. By reducing mental illness to this cartoonish portrayal, it takes away from Claudel’s horrifying plight. It is also, even more importantly, offensive.
Gradually, we see Camille’s initial resistance and eventual acceptance of her institutionalisation. In the end, we are left with the image of Rodin, hammering away at what looks like The Thinker. A cruel reflection of Claudel’s life – despite the talent and tragedy, it is Rodin the world remembers.