It’s been more than a week since I saw Boris Eifman’s Rodin at Northrop Auditorium.
Parts, I liked.
But, I’ve replayed the onstage action in my head. I’ve read and reread the program notes. I’ve talked about the work with friends and colleagues. I’ve investigated the story on which it was based. And I’ve reached the same conclusion each time.
Eifman’s approach to this story perpetuates problematic perspectives on women and mental illness.
The two-act ballet interprets a real-life story of power, pain, and passion. In 1883, French sculptor Auguste Rodin agreed to supervise a course for sculptor Alfred Boucher. There, Rodin met another talented sculptor — Camille Claudel. She was 18 and Rodin a 40-three-year-old, married father. Yet, the two began a tumultuous love affair that would last fifteen years.
A quick Google search for “Camille Claudel” reveals that, besides being a talented artist who had studied her craft well before Rodin entered the picture, Claudel was a daughter and sister who maintained contact with her family.
And so, the language describing Claudel throughout Eifman Ballet’s program notes is troubling. Consider the following excerpt:
“Everything Camille has — her beauty, youth, sculptress’ gift — is sacrificed to her lover and teacher….”
It is absurd that anyone or any organization, especially one led by a man, would name and prioritize a woman’s assets for her. Basing an entire ballet on such a flawed conclusion is both artistically and ethically questionable. Furthermore, Eifman paints a picture that tells only parts of the real story. His ballet portrays Claudel as a woman swiftly driven mad by unrequited love, professional non-fulfillment, and the intersection of the two.
The affair did end, her career did suffer, and she did blame Rodin for many of her hardships. But Eifman’s ballet dramatizes the volatility and delicate nature of her mental state, making it seem as if after her relationship with Rodin ended, she had no avenue open to her except the mental asylum. In fact, Claudel’s brother had her institutionalized years after her romantic affair with Rodin. Claudel’s father disagreed with the choice.
Still, Eifman chose to portray her as a crumbling shell of a person. Why?
Onstage, as in reality, Rodin split his attention between his mistress, Claudel, and his wife, Rose Beuret. Eifman’s treatment of this aspect of the story — both onstage and in the program notes — perpetuates a false feminine dichotomy that has tarnished many pieces of art and entertainment. The program notes describe Rodin as “torn between the passion for one woman and the sincere affection for another.” Onstage, Claudel’s character doesn’t develop much beyond “bohemian sex kitten” or “unstable eccentric.” Beuret is portrayed as a woman whose entire existence revolves around her unfaithful husband — as a result, she comes across as a fool.
It is possible that these two women actually were the superficial individuals that Eifman’s production makes them out to be. What seems more plausible is that Rodin pigeonholed two women from history into two-dimensional, stock character roles.
Does Eifman really buy these portrayals? How could he? Hasn’t the dance community gotten over the idea that women are either vixens or virgins? If not, why keep feeding that ill-informed notion?
Another aspect of the ballet I took issue with — the depiction of mental illness. Though costuming for sections of the piece set in a mental asylum seemed to be based on period clothing of the sort, the overall look infantalized and sexualized the scenario. Paired with the fact that the choreography in those sections evoked “zombie apocalypse,” Rodin demonstrated the creative teams’ ignorance and insensitivity surrounding a concept central to the project.
Eifman and his creative team missed an opportunity here. Imagine the impact had they sought out and incorporated experts’ insights on mental asylums and symptoms of mental illness.
Was the tragedy of Rodin lost on its creator? Or did I miss Eifman’s intention entirely?
I don’t think so. Contemporary movement aside, Eifman Ballet’s Rodin is stuck in the past.