March 2, 2024

London premiere of Rodin by the Eifman ballet at the ENO

To what extent does genius excuse behaviour? 

This is the question posed by the life of sculptor Auguste Rodin and by the Eifman bio-ballet that is showing at the London Coliseum until 19th April. (Yes, it’s a short run, so if you’re keen you’d better get booking now.)

Created in 2011 by renegade choreographer Boris Eifman, the ballet focuses on the relationship between the two sculptors Rodin and Camille Claudel. Last night was the London premiere, as part of the UK-Russia Year of Culture, organised by the British Council and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Camille Claudel is a young sculptor who becomes Rodin’s pupil, lover and muse. If you look at their work you can see the cross-fertilisation of ideas. Camille even finds solutions to sculptural problems before the fêted Rodin. She spent thirty years of her life in an asylum after the two split up, and the thesis presented is that the relationship with Rodin was directly responsible for her suffering.

The ballet opens in the asylum in which Camille Claudel lives for much of her life, before we flash-back to happier days. The dancers in the first ring a ring of roses circular dance get closer and closer, tighter and tighter, suggesting the compressing feelings of madness and claustrophobia that she was to experience.

Oleg Gabyshev depicts Rodin as a very lithe fellow, younger than his actual forty-something years, devoted to women and sculpture. He is all passion and despair, work and sex. All the dancers are athletes of the highest order, able to contort into the trickiest of positions whether on the floor or high in the air. Lyubov Andreyeva manages to portray Camille’s strong personality that forces its way into the male-dominated world of Parisian fine art, as well as her collapse into mental illness. Pre-recorded music from Ravel, Saint-Saëns and Massenet accompanies the dancing, chosen, presumably as it dates from a similar period and is music that Rodin and Claudel could have heard.

Ballet and sculpture both utilise the human body, but in very different ways. In the best scenes of the ballet Eifman has managed to merge the two ingeniously. Normally sculptors manipulate clay to imitate human flesh. Here Rodin manipulates human flesh to imitate clay. Five dancers crouch on a large sculptor’s wheel. Gabyshev pushes and pulls at the bodies, raising an arm here, a head there. The appearance of a sculptor creating works remarkably well, thanks to the precision of movement by the ensemble. By the end of the scene, out of malleable human flesh he has created an approximation of Rodin’s Burghers of Calais. Later the dancers utilise a free-standing frame to recreate a sense of Rodin’s huge project The Gates of Hell, a difficult 3D choreography test that is passed with aplomb.

Whilst Rodin is shown creating out of huge chunks of clay, Camille spends much time working with a very small maquette that emphasises the difference in their status. Later though Camille gets to work with marble and another impressive transformative scene shows her creating her Clotho sculpture. As she works at the wheel the youngest of the three Fates appears from a block of marble, the dancer portraying the inanimate rise of the object from the marble and its subsequent destruction remarkably.

The ballet has to deal in plot lines with broad strokes. Camille’s madness is seen as a given, whereas in reality there is doubt about whether she was actually insane. Her doctors tried to get her family to accept her back from the asylum. Eifman does not question Camille’s suffering or wonder to what extent Camille was co-author of Rodin’s best pieces. Instead he has taken the bones of the story and used it for his own investigation into genius and insanity. This is hard to do and results in many contorted and deliberately uncomfortable positions as he tries to convey struggle and the mysteries of creation through dance and gesture.

There are parallels with the relationship between Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell which is also being examined in London at the moment in Orton. Like the playwright Rodin gets the critical attention and fortune. Like Halliwell, Camille feels unappreciated and hidden. Their talents are subsumed into that of the acknowledged master. Like Orton, the piece is named after the more famous of the pair, whilst focusing as much on the life of their partner.

Few are the opportunities to mention ballet and cricket in the same article. I’ve tried to hold it back, but it is proving impossible, so here goes. Eifman divides people like Twenty20 cricket. It’s an ideal analogy, though I admit a little niche. His work is popular. Or is it populist? His ballets are exciting, or are they too one-note?Traditionalists might not like it, but he is finding a new audience for ballet with his new forms of ballet-theatre. Rodin doesn’t have a deep storyline and the dancing mental patients are difficult to watch, but it includes some clever moments that are unique and nicely worked.

Are the sculptures that Rodin produced worth the suffering of Camille Claudel? The Musee Rodin would have to say they were. For the rest of us it’s not so clear.

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