Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg returned to Zellerbach Hall Rodin May 10-12 at Zellerbach Hall with Boris Eifman's 2011 ballet Rodin, about the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. In contrast to other choreographers after Balanchine, who have practically made abstraction synonymous with contemporary dance, Eifman often returns to stories and refers to his works as "stage psychoanalysis." Yet the idea of abstraction hovers beneath a piece like Rodin, which, though ostensibly about the love triangle between Rodin, his wife, Rose, and his mistress and muse, the sculptor Camille Claudel, is also l'art pour l'art: an ekphrasis of sculpture, an aesthetic transformation of ugly feelings.
The piece begins where Eifman's 1994 Don Quixote ended: the asylum, where Claudel spent the last thirty years of her life. Dressed in corseted pajamas, inmates circle the stage like happily lost dolls. Camille, danced with poignant intensity Friday by Lyubov Andreyeva, stands stiff as a statue, sits with her knees poking up next to her ears, gnaws her forearm, peers through the grid of her fingers, the mind's madness expressed in its violence against the body. She wrings a mass of clay that Rodin, the inscrutable Oleg Gabyshev, attempts to wrench from her hands; as with most obsessions, it's unclear whether he loves or resents her.
Rodin's studio is a zone of jolly misogyny, a league of assistants in a Broadway style workman's dance hauling around a headless Venus. Models whip off plush coats to pout and pose. The artist enters, manipulating their bony limbs with a ferocity that is both sensual and exploitative. Camille stalks onstage in overalls and a cap, pushing a wheelbarrow and apparently at home in a man's world, until she, too, is subjected to a stripping and reshaping that can only be compared to gang rape.
The work flashes back and forth in time, an aged but dignified Rose, danced by the elegant Nina Zmievets, moving in distinct, grounded lines against the passionate entanglements of young Camille and Rodin in the studio, and older Rodin sitting to supper as younger Camille fusses zealously with clay figurines. Rose's youth returns in the raucous color of a peasant bacchanalia -- a set piece of nineteenth century ballets that here emphasizes the clash between nature and art and an ominous deflowering as Rodin leads the lead dancer away -- before the many small hurts of decades are elided in the present reality of a relationship gone cold.
Efforts to narrate are surpassed by vivid vignettes, such as the spare pas de deux between Rodin and Rose to Satie's desolate Gnossienne No. 3, using the classic vaudeville props of an umbrella and a hat, Camille's Chaplinesque solo with a suitcase, a glimpse of Toulouse-Lautrec's Paris in Camille's venture into a debaucherous cabaret, with green-suited critics swarming over and consuming the sculptures like so many locusts.
Camille is frequently shown against cloth, as if in an etymological play on material that hints at her stunted life as a creator: her head becomes a mask as her face pushes through Rodin's shirt, she floats on the faux foam of a silk parachute sea, borne by the unseen hands of asylum patients, she suffocates beneath a drop cloth as Rodin transforms her from artist to artwork.
The main formal conflict of the piece is that between mime and touch. There's a strange contrast between the direct maneuvering of the body-as-sculpture, the necessary hand-and-foot holds of pas de deux, and the evident absence of contact in moments such as a fight between Camille and Rodin, her slaps nightmarishly unable to effect even the reverberation of sound. The piece is likewise symbolic rather than representative of how Rodin himself would have cast the limbs in bronze or chiseled hard marble. What makes Rodin's work remarkable is the breath of animation he coaxes from rock, but Eifman here does the opposite, using the drop cloth as a shroud, reducing the body to a petrified marble corpse to render the work of art. The only time the blows of the hammer and the labor of the body become clear is in the backlit vision at curtain's close, of a man battering an inexorably adamant torso, giving us in a glance the intense violence necessarily exerted to make art, as well as the violence of art upon its maker.