Through 'Rodin,' Eifman Ballet Explores the Lives of Tortured Artists

Hands linked, women in dust-white bonnets snake around the floor, lurking aimlessly. Their monotonous pace -- so in unison that it seems the routine -- counters the twisted smirks painted across their faces. Some have eyes bulging out of sockets, while others smile like they're made of glass, empty and translucent. There's nothing left of these people, save their imaginations, and each must have a story that explains how they got here, to an insane asylum, forgotten and forgetting.

We get to hear one of them -- or see it -- the story of Camille Claudel. A sculptor who was once heralded as "a revolt against nature: a woman genius," when we meet her, she is broken and beaten after 30 years in captivity, devastated by a world that she once loved.

Though Rodin, Boris Eifman's 2011 ballet, is named for the celebrated French artist, it is truly an ode to his muse and protégé. The plot follows Auguste Rodin and Claudel's steamy relationship, one that resulted in extraordinary artistic production but also great emotional turmoil.

Still, the ballet isn't about Claudel, either. Not really. It's about those curious few who have their lights stomped out by the crude forces of everyday life, and about what love takes when it leaves.

No one comes out of heartbreak whole -- something's always missing, and never returns. Perhaps it's lost innocence, or trust, or optimism, or personality, or sanity. For Claudel, it was everything.

These themes are brought to light by St. Petersburg Eifman Ballet, which boasts gorgeous dancers and an especially boisterous male corps, with some standouts who deserve recognition on the international stage. Oleg Gabyshev and Lyubov Andreyeva lead the production as Rodin and Claudel, and while Gabyshev's lines are lovely, it is Andreyeva's emotional presence that steals the show. Though they take time to warm into the choreography (thanks to no fault of their own), the company ends with resilience and dynamism, proving its merit to a global dance community through a tale about what lies beneath art like Eifman's.

The first act of the ballet represents the manifestations of genius, while the second half reveals their costs. Thus, the second half is much more compelling than the first, as it avoids superficialities and digs deeper into the subconscious of artists, here represented as people with incredible purpose, but also incredible agony. It is when this agony uncoils to consume the stage that Eifman's movement is at its best: when it expresses mortal fragility instead of trying to defy mortality.

For example, in a pas de deux to "Clair de Lune" in the first act, Rodin first uses Claudel as a muse, and Eifman first tries to prove that his work is a classic by setting it to a classic score. But the scene collapses under the pressure that is two-fold: representing a light bulb moment for a frustrated artist and doing justice to one of the most beloved pieces of music in modern times. What follows is a series of impressive but unrepresentative lifts and passionate kisses that feel too cliché at the climax of a song. The musicality is missing, as Eifman hasn't pulled out any of the more beautiful strains from the piano keys. And so the intimacy is corrupted by ambition and doesn't translate to the kind of potency that the duet should hold.

Contrast that with Claudel's solo at the train station in the second act, her body flinging into attitudes and distortions with unperturbed abandon. By then, the music has changed, and screams and chatter intensify the soundtrack to feel more postmodern and ephemeral and less sacrosanct. And when Rodin climbs around his sculptural post, shrinking and expanding to symbolize his psychological stress as an artist and lover, he too feels more real, more possessed and fleshy, than the Rodin who has just found his muse and takes her to bed.

Despite inconsistencies in quality, by the denouement, the work is powerful and draining, an emotional overload for anyone who's ever been in love and been hurt, or for anyone who's sacrificed their personal lives for their craft. Indeed, Rodin seems reflective of the violence enacted to create society's artifice, which can then be abstracted into art. Rodin and Claudel sculpt bodies into abnormal, pained positions, maneuvering them to be unnatural and inhuman. As the curtain closes, the famous sculptor strikes marble as though he means to destroy it, contouring each side and dimension to fit his tastes. This brutality rivals the brutality experienced by the characters throughout the ballet, all of whom have been damaged by a civilization that demands strict adherence to norms.

And when the world strikes so hard, it's no wonder that some of its victims -- like Claudel -- fall apart.

Rodin was performed at the Teatros del Canal in Madrid, Spain from March 11-13, 2016. The ballet debuted in Saint Petersburg, Russia five years ago.