Ballet hybrid 'Who's Who' is a hit

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  April 15, 2003 at 7:00 AM
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NEW YORK, April 15 (UPI) -- St. Petersburg's Eifman Ballet is scoring a hit with a brilliantly realized full-evening work titled "Who's Who" that is a hybrid on two counts.

It is a retelling of the American film "Some Like It Hot" with a Russian twist and a classic ballet informed by modern dance, an avant-garde amalgam that fits this daring company to a T. No wonder Eifman, on its sixth annual American tour, has replaced the stodgy Kirov and the Bolshoi ballet companies as the "must see" Russian ensemble for many ballet fans across the nation.

The troupe founded and directed by Boris Eifman is presenting the New York premiere of "Who's Who" during its two-week engagement at City Center running through Sunday. New York is the third stop on the Eifman's eight-city U.S. tour with visits to Cleveland, Washington, D.C., Seattle, San Francisco, and Costa Mesa, Calif., yet to come this spring.

Eifman, 57, has created more than 40 ballets in a career that began as a choreographer for the Maly and Kirov Ballets in Leningrad. In 1977 he founded the New Ballet of Leningrad, now known as the St. Petersburg State Academic Ballet, or simply "The Eifman." It is Russia's first and only company that performs the works of a single choreographer and is known for a repertory of biographical psychodramas and literary-derived ballets that draw mostly on Russian sources.

"Who's Who" marks a departure from the company's usual fare in taking inspiration from a classic American film. And why comedy, a break from Eifman's past works?

"I started out to make a ballet of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'Tender Is the Night,' but after 9/11 I decided to make something light, not another tragedy," Eifman told United Press International. "I wanted people to be entertained, to smile. 'Who's Who' is my love letter to America."

Billy Wilder's 1959 comedy starring Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as two musicians who witness the St. Valentine's day massacre in Chicago and try to elude mob pursuers by joining a girl's band is transformed by Eifman into a ballet about two Russian émigré dancers who attempt to escape mobsters by cross-dressing as showgirls. All of the fun and dazzle of "Some Like it Hot" make it intact into "Who's Who."

Yuri Smekalov and Constantin Matulevsky dance the roles of dancers Max and Alex, first seen as disembarking in New York with a horde of Russian immigrants in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Smekalov is hilarious as a red-wigged entertainer who wins the heart of an amorous film director with a tango and nearly is forced to go through a Jewish marriage ceremony, an experience that leaves him so confused and discouraged that he flees back to Russia. Matulevsky is more the charismatic leading man (and woman) who falls in love with a showgirl named Lynn, is unmasked by the mob but lives to establish his own ballet company, and stays in America.

Both men are virtuoso dancers when it comes to technique, but they also have strong comic impulses that make their slapstick movements and daring pratfalls a joy to watch. Natalia Povorozniuk is wonderfully gamin as Lynn, reminiscent of Renee Jeanmaire in her prime, and she even does an American tap dance. Oleg Markov as the film director, Bill, is funny and fleet, and Alexander Melkaev, is cartoonishly threatening as the mob enforcer.

There are a great many scenes in "Who's Who," and Eifman moves them along at a brisk pace by means of cinematic montage and quick cuts.

Each scene is danced to a separate music number, all taped, ranging from works by Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Billy Strayhorn, Louis Prima, and Marvin Hamlisch to several Sergei Rachmaninoff excerpts and a snippet of Sam Barber's "Adagio for Strings." Adding to the richness of the patchwork score is music by Kol Simcha, a Swiss klezmer band, for the emigrant's arrival and the wedding party.

The ballet is particularly strong in big production scenes with a lineup of incredibly disciplined showgirls who can do precision dancing as well as the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes and also are polished pantomimists, giving a wonderful impression of playing invisible musical instruments. The female corps de ballet tends to upstage its male partners, although the men have their moments, too, displaying amazing talents for acrobatics.

Slava Okunev's set design is stunning, with various architectural configurations formed by two mobile pillars supporting an overhead arch, all in gleaming metal, that can suggest a pier under the Brooklyn Bridge, a California beach scene with silver palm trees, and a dramatically lit Hollywood style nightclub.

Early 1920s style costumes come in bold colors or black shimmering with silver and gold spangles in the best flapper tradition, and Okunev doesn't spare the ostrich plumes when it comes to designing headdresses. In contrast, there is a dream ballet sequence in 18th-century formal all-white court costumes danced to Rachmaninoff's "Symphonic Dances."

The ballet ends with an ensemble of nearly 40 dancers performing exuberantly to Duke Ellington's "That Doo-Wah Thing (It don't mean a thing if you ain't got that swing)." The Eifman company definitely has that swing when it comes to taking an American myth and filtering it through Russian sensibilities as "Who's Who" does so ably with wit and originality.

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