Boris Eifman is a choreographer who does nothing by halves. His ballets display dance as high drama, based on such stories as Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, the life of Rodin and a Russian Hamlet; favouring extravagant emotional expression, he constantly breaks down the boundaries of classical dance language.
Next year his company, the Boris Eifman Ballet marks its 40th anniversary and now it is about to visit the London Coliseum with his latest creation, Up and Down. Its typically ambitious narrative has proved controversial - but as the Globe and Mail put it, Eifman is "the choreographer that cynical, hard-nosed dance critics love to hate, but whom audiences shower with adoration."
"I was always attracted by the ideas and heritage of Sigmund Freud and considered making a new creation about him," Eifman says, speaking via an interpreter from his St Petersburg studios. But Freud's biography did not deliver appropriate drama; instead, in F Scott Fitzgerald's novel Tender is the Night Eifman found both the psychological conflict and the vivid evocation of the 1920s that he wanted.
The ballet's story evolved from the novel and evokes "two different fates": a psychiatrist cures his patient, marries her, then himself falls apart and ends up as a patient in his former clinic. Her destiny carries her up; his takes him down. "The idea was to create a ballet and a musical in one," Eifman says. It is set to music by Gershwin, Schubert and Schoenberg: "On the one hand it's a sparkly, interesting and very joyful story, which is displayed by the corps de ballet's energetic young people. On the other hand it explores the depths of the human emotional world."
Now 70, he is one of the few Jewish choreographers and company directors in Russia to enjoy such a high profile and strong state support. It has been hard-won; over four decades his company has weathered times of profound upheaval in Russia.
"The first ten years, under the USSR, was really a hard time, during which I tried to establish myself as a free choreographer in an unfree society," Eifman says. "We had to fight for every production and every performance." Then came perestroika: "Freedom was flowing - but it resembled anarchy, because the financial situation was a complete disaster, everything was plummeting and there was no financial viability even to create a performance. Many dancers defected to the west and it was a complex task to maintain the theatre.
"The recent years have been a kind of renaissance. The company has powerful support, both financial and moral, from the authorities and today we have the opportunity of presenting our art to the world." Each season they give around 100 performances in Russia, plus extensive tours; this year they have visited Kazakhstan, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Georgia, Belarus, Monaco and Tel Aviv, where they sold-out at the Israeli Opera.
Born in Siberia and trained in Leningrad, Eifman started choreographing at the age of 13; by 16 he had his first ballet company. "Already then I began creating drama pieces for ballet which explored not only movement, but also the inner world of the human being."
His attraction to dance as drama, he says, wasa way of seeking to "transform ballet from its exterior form of expression to achieve some different layers of consciousness: something related to deep human passions and philosophy."
Eifman's Jewish identity has formed a crucial part of his art. "During the Soviet era I felt some pressure because of my ethnic identity," he says, "and now I'm happy to be living in days when on the official level one cannot feel any sense of antisemitism. But during the Soviet time, with productions such as Song of Songs and My Jerusalem, despite the outer circumstances I needed to find a way to make this expression for works related to ethnical or religious topics." My Jerusalem was "first and foremost addressed to the young audience who has lost faith in many moral values".
"I am a person who deeply believes in God," he declares, "but this kind of conversation with the higher power is on a personal level; I do not seek a mediator for my conversation with God. When I travel to different cities I always try to attend a synagogue, because many generations of Jews came through the same paths to express their religious beliefs. When I approach the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, I feel this was the place approached by many generations of people and in this moment I feel united with the souls of those people.
"But then in my studio I work with Russian dancers and share a part of my soul with them, to make them closer to the people whose souls I felt related to in that other world, and in exchange they give a part of their Russian soul. The great Jewish soul and the great Russian soul together create some new kind of spiritual experience through the art of ballet."
His activities to further the future of that art extend well beyond the rehearsal studio. Several years ago he founded a new dance academy in St Petersburg, aiming to offer free, all-round education to exceptionally gifted young dancers from all over Russia. Now he is spearheading the creation of two new ballet theatres: one for children's dance companies and the other , the Boris Eifman Palace of Dance, its main theatre complemented by a second, smaller stage as a "laboratory" for new works.
"It's about making a permanent art facility where work starts at 8am and never stops until 6am the next day," he says. "It would not only be a home for professional dancers, but also for amateurs who want to explore dance culture. My dream is that dance becomes a complete part of life."