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Barbara Newman sees dance by Boris Eifman and Shobana Jeyasingh

Posted on December 19, 2016

The second definition of “translate” in my dictionary is “to turn into one’s own or another language.” Choreographers do this all the time, turning ideas, words, music or images into movement, hoping their translations will measure up emotionally and intellectually to the original material. George Balanchine said, “There are no mother-in-laws in ballet,” convinced that certain relationships require more explaining than movement can provide, and most sensible dance makers steer clear of Bach and Mozart, whose expressive genius is seldom matched, much less surpassed.

Yet choreographers can’t resist putting their own stamp on literature. Boris Eifman has already made choreographic mincemeat out of Hamlet, Anna Karenina, and The Seagull, and he has now – in Up and Down at the London Coliseum – taken on Tender is the Night, F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel about the Roaring Twenties.

Having read the book decades ago and deliberately ignored the programme notes, I had a hard time making sense of it. A fragile patient locked in an asylum falls for her doctor. A man in black pays the doctor, presumably to keep her there, and eventually she marries the doctor. Act II: the doctor falls for a movie star and abandons his unhappy wife. Repentent and drunk, he then returns to her, but she has already found another man.

My guest informed me that the man in black was the patient’s abusive father; I thought he was her lover or husband, whose entangled duet with her doctor – sorry, her psychiatrist – represented a growing attraction between them. How could you tell? Given cardboard characters and choreographic clichés depicting madness, glamour and giddy parties, how could you care?

Between the pas de deux – pop-eyed faces, twisted limbs and turned-in feet for mental torment; swooping, lunging lifts for passionate romance – the ensemble worked overtime to animate nightclubs and beach frolics, racing through the dance styles and costumes of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. But despite their energy, neither Fitzgerald’s narrative nor the Jazz Age’s feverish desperation survived Eifman’s treatment of them. Ideally, these well-trained performers could concentrate on better ballets than overblown rubbish like this. As it is, they may simply be grateful to have jobs.

At the other end of the production scale, Shobana Jeyasingh has translated sculpture into dance so sensitively that immobile figures move as they never could before. The Courtauld Gallery’s exhibit Rodin and Dance: The Essence of Movement contains plaster and terracotta statuettes, watercolours, drawings and photographs of the dancers and acrobats the artist knew (see Dancing Times, November 2016). His fascination with their activity prompted the works on display, and his perpetual need to balance weight, volume, and line mirrors every dancer’s daily efforts.

Staying close to her inspiration, Jeyasingh has invented elegant transitions to link the static poses of the foot-high figures, achieving a fluent translation of her sources without intruding on their singular effect. In a putty-coloured leotard, deliberately roughened with seams to resemble the figures’ irregular finish, Noora Kela dances for ten minutes in complete silence. The view through the glass display case that houses the statues allows us to see Rodin’s interpretation of dance and a memorable dance of that interpretation at the same time.

Jeyasingh’s response to these delicate sculptures imposes no more on them than they can bear, and her choreographic eloquence enables us to experience two artistic visions with equal absorption.

Noora Kela will perform this solo for the last time at 5pm on January 4, 2017. Don’t miss it. For further information, visit the Courtauld Gallery’s website.

Photograph: Courtesy of Shobana Jeyasingh Dance.

Barbara Newman is dance critic for Country Life, a frequent contributor to numerous periodicals and reference works, and the author of a number books about ballet which include a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance, a children’s book, The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories, and Grace Under Pressure.

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