When Boris Eifman’s ballet, "Tchaikovsky: The Mystery of Life and Death," premiered in Moscow in 1993, angry picketers surrounded the concert hall.
"They stood with a banner that read, ‘Stay away from our Tchaikovsky,’" said Eifman, whose ballet debuts at the Orange County Performing Arts Center May 16-18.
The provocative phantasmagoric piece explores the beloved Russian composer’s tortured psyche, especially his repressed homosexuality. His inner split is portrayed literally, with one dancer representing the closeted, anguished Tchaikovsky, and another his sexy, uninhibited alter ego. Homoerotic playing cards cavort in one sequence, while another depicts Tchaikovsky kissing a sleeping prince, rather than a princess, in an allusion to his ballet, "Sleeping Beauty." The piece is as explicit, if less sensationalistic, as Ken Russell’s 1970 film "The Music Lovers."
The audaciously flamboyant work is what audiences have come to expect of Eifman, whose ballets include "My Jerusalem," an ode to the Israeli capital, and "Red Giselle," about a Soviet ballerina gone mad.
While noting that Eifman’s company has received far more attention in the West than others in Russia’s vibrant, contemporary dance scene, Los Angeles Times dance critic Lewis Segal nevertheless praises his "talent for grand-scale pictorial splendor" and for creating "very gutsy work within that society."
"Homosexuality was only legalized in Russia in 1997, and here he has a seminaked Tchaikovsky and his boyfriend doing male duets," Segal told The Journal. "His ‘Red Giselle’ has a communist [official] virtually raping the heroine. Eifman managed to stage dances about religion, and he is a Jewish artist who managed to stand up to the communists and not back down. So I give him amazing points for courage."
The renegade choreographer took his first dance classes at age 6 in Siberia, where his father, an engineer, had been ordered to work in a tank factory during World War II. In 1953, his family relocated to Kishinev, Moldavia, where Eifman began choreographing at 13 — to his parents’ chagrin.
"A musician in a Russian Jewish family, it’s normal, but a dancer is abnormal," he said through a translator.
The authorities also regarded him as abnormal when, after graduating from the Leningrad Conservatory, he founded his own company in 1977 to create "absolutely nontraditional work that broke the canon of Soviet ballet."
While audiences cheered his unorthodox mix of contemporary movement and Freudian drama, the cultural commissars disapproved. They nixed his funding and forbade him from touring outside the U.S.S.R, forcing Eifman, now 58, to scrape by on ticket sales in the provinces. They also pressured him to leave the country: "They said, ‘You’re not a Soviet choreographer; better you should go to Israel,’" Eifman recalled.
The harassment included anti-Semitism, even though the choreographer felt "this is my culture; it’s just like a difficult relationship in a family."
So he chose to remain in the U.S.S.R., although he took the first opportunity to visit Israel, when Perestroika hit in 1989.
Walking around the capital, Eifman said, spurred "My Jerusalem," in which three soloists personify Judaism, Christianity and Islam co-existing in one place.
"I wanted to show that God created this city to show a model of love," he said.
Four years later, Eifman focused on Russian culture when he holed up in the St. Petersburg library to research a piece on his favorite composer, Tchaikovsky. He pored over diaries and letters in which the musician described his unhappy marriage and a suicide attempt.
"My whole life I wondered why he composed such tragic music, and I learned it was because he lived a double life," Eifman said. "He was a religious man, and he thought his sexuality was his personal tragedy. I decided two dancers could show the conflict between his soul and his body."
When "Tchaikovsky" premiered in New York during the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg’s triumphant 1998 United States debut, not a single picketer surrounded the concert hall. Instead, excited Russian immigrants lined up to see their favorite company, along with expectant dance critics.
After the first performance, The New York Times’ Anna Kisselgoff wrote that "you won’t find such daring actor-dancers anywhere else, not even in other Russian companies."
Eifman traces his success to his dual cultural roots. "I make Russian ballets with a Jewish soul," he said.
Tickets, $20-$65, are available at (714) 556-2787, ext. 6677; online at www.ocpac.org; and through Ticketmaster, (714) 740-7878 or (213) 365-3500.