In Boris Eifman’s ballet, The Pygmalion Effect, dancers are called upon to take full advantage of their bodies’ capabilities. During Friday night’s opening performance in New York, the stage brimmed with an expressivity that could barely be contained. The plastique, theatricality, and sensual movement of the dancer’s bodies create an earthy feel to the ballet that could have easily filled a space twice as large. At the same time, the smaller stage provided audiences with a unique proximity to the dancer during the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg’s four performances (June 7-9) at the New York City Center.

The pygmalion effect. Photo by Evgeny Matveev

Set to excerpts from works of Johann Strauss, Jr., the tempo of the tragi-comedy ballet is fast and unrelenting. The plot moves forward in every step, as the characters run across the stage in movements that are always both pantomime and dance. Both Eifman and the dancers expect the audience to keep up.

The pygmalion effect. Photo by Evgeny Matveev

The story takes place in a caricatured and ironic version of the twenty-first century, where angels appear on hoverboards, but maids still wear Victorian-inspired uniforms. Fait or chance brings our main characters together—Leon (Oleg Gabyshev), a self-absorbed ballroom dancer, and a lower-class girl named Gala (Lyubov Andreyeva)—when Gala saves Leon from the attack of bandits. Soon after, Gala becomes captivated by the chic, other-worldliness of the ballroom life. Naturally, her affection extends to Leon, who embodies the ideal she now dreams of. Leon, in turn, becomes interested in the challenge of transforming this odd but compelling creature of a girl into his protégé.

The pygmalion effect. Photo by Evgeny Matveev

In the first act, Gala’s character has something of a Pippi Longstocking appeal to her. Just as vulgar and untamed by societal norms, her body moves like a rag doll or a marionette pulled rapidly by a hundred strings. Her limbs are loose; her movements—choppy but demonstrating powerful plasticity. In fact, there is incredible lightness and seeming effortlessness to the movements and jumps of all Eifman’s dancers, carried through both the sultry ballroom scenes and the rowdy dances of Gala’s bandit-like “family.”

The pygmalion effect. Photo by Evgeny Matveev

Plasticityand expressive theatricality have become signature components of the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg, which aims to capture “the height of passion experienced by ballet’s characters,” bringing works such as The Duel, The Idiot, The Master and Margarita, The Twelfth Night, Anna Karenina, and many others to dance stages across the world. Alongside movement that fill these ballets, the other defining feature of these works is the psychological undercurrents of the story. In fact, Eifman has often defined his genre as “psychological ballet.” The Pygmalion Effect is no exception. Beyond what can at times feel like a commotion of performance, Pygmalion contains layers of questions for the audience to consider.

The pygmalion effect. Photo by Evgeny Matveev

The hint lies in the title and the references are two-fold. On the one hand, the ballet is a modern-day rendition of the Greek myth, in which an artist falls so deeply in love with the ivory statue he creates that the gods bring it to life. On the other hand, the Pygmalion effect is the psychological effect leading to “an improvement in a person’s performance when someone expects them to perform well or achieve more.”

The pygmalion effect. Photo by Evgeny Matveev

In Eifman’s ballet, we see both these ideas played out in the relationship between Leon and Gala. Imitating her teacher, Gala moves out of vulgar dance into ballroom steps, fulfilling Leon’s expectation of her dormant talent. But whether it is a transformation from art to life, I am not so sure. Perhaps it is the reverse that we see, as Gala gives up some of her life, or joy in it, for the sake of art.

Eifman’s program notes point us to a deeper consideration: “The miraculous transformation does not make our heroine happy. Harmony is destroyed along with remnants of sweet fantasies. But what is life if not reverie brought on by the longing for an unattainable dream?” In other words, the choreographer seems to be asking, can we really expect to achieve happiness, wholeness, fulfillment in our life?

The pygmalion effect. Photo by Souheil Michael Khoury

For Leon the hope for fulfillment was in becoming a famous dancer and then teaching someone else his technique, thereby receiving recognition from his colleagues. For Gala, the hope was in love, art, or higher social standing. Through she comes close to her dream, we learn that Gala has given things up for the sake of her achievements as a dancer. When Gala’s father comes to celebrate his daughter’s success, Leon attempts to come between them, pushing her father away. When coming back to her bandit-community, Gala looks more like a foreigner than a prodigal daughter, her movements now too refined and out of place. Yet she has not found acceptance with Leon either, who came to treat her as a project to show-off his abelites.

The pygmalion effect. Photo by Souheil Michael Khoury

Though the ballet leans mostly into the comedic aspects, filling the hall with chuckles and laughs, The Pygmalion Effect closes on a somber note. At the end of the story, the only comfort Gala finds is when an angel comes to dance with her in the closing scene. Their duet is movement full of passion and compassion. It is also movement that seems to pose Eifman’s question in a final and more serious way: in what then do we places our hopes?

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