When Eifman Ballet hits our shores in August, they'll be serving up two of their marquee classics: Tchaikovsky, which premiered in 1993, and Anna Karenina, from 2005.
Tchaikovsky is an intimate portrait of the life and madness of the great Russian composer, and a celebration of the masterpieces that he left behind. Anna Karenina is part of choreographer Boris Eifman's programme of adapting literary masterpieces to the stage, sitting alongside such other Eifman works as Master and Margarita (1987), Karamazovs (1995), Don Quixote (1994, 2009) and Onegin (2009).
Soloist Nina Zmievets will be performing her signature role, the doomed protagonist Anna. "This is a woman with a tragic addiction for a man," she says, speaking toTime Out from the Eifman bunker in St Petersburg. "One which destroys all her moral and ethical values, forcing her to choose between her family and her personal erotic desires."
Eifman himself describes Tolstoy's novel as an exploration of the destructive psychological drives that Freud would later identify as the "death drive".
"For me, as a woman," says Zmievets, "it’s a kind of eternal story. A love triangle, and the choice between morality on one hand and personal gratification on the other."
In bringing works such as Anna Karenina to the stage, Eifman doesn’t attempt to retell the story. Instead, he tries to open something new, to reveal hidden spaces discoverable only through the language of the body.
The role of Anna – her soul consumed with erotic desires that are turning her, as Eifman describes it, into a "monster" – is as psychologically challenging as it is physically challenging.
"It's one of the most important parts for my career," says Zmievets. "During the last several seasons it has been performed regularly, so I feel more self-confident in the role."
Zmievets, who is from the Ukraine originally, first joined the company in 2000, but then worked abroad three years, beginning in 2003, before returning to Eifman in 2006. She has been with the company ever since.
“Professionally, I found the level extremely high," she says of her time working abroad, "especially in the American institutions I worked with. They were technically excellent. But, psychologically, you can’t find any other company where the demands are as rigorous as Eifman Ballet. The stress is very high, but the rewards for that are much greater.”
The company has almost fifty dancers, with between ten and 12 soloists at any one time, but finding artists who are not only at a common technical level but also temperamentally suited is a constant challenge.
"It is one of the most important requirements for our soloists not only to be perfect instruments of dance, technically, but artists in their own right: drama artists. It’s not only through the movement of limbs, but through the face and eyes, through a glance, for instance," explains Zmievets. "It is a combined work. Your soul works as hard as your body does. It is hard emotional work. The common requirement for our dancers is to be a unique performer."
It all sounds incredibly arduous, a constant pressure on body and soul to give heightened expression to Eifman's characteristically passionate choreographic style.
“It is an uneasy life, living with that stress," admits Zmievets. "But it is like an artistic addiction. You need the hardship, the difficulty. You get some great emotional reward from the audience. Incredible emotional feedback. Everything is connected: when you work hard, you get a greater emotional and spiritual connection."
When asked about the humour in Eifman's work, Zmievets' answer is characteristically Russian.
"Eifman’s humour is melodramatic, connected with grief, so he is really laughing through his tears."