Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg played Cal Performances on May 10,11 and 12. Photo: Cal Performances

Thirty-six years after Boris Eifman began honing his “dissident choreographer” chops as artistic director of Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg, a three-show Bay Area premiere of Rodin at CAL Performances revealed that nothing has changed.

And yet, everything is different.

Eifman is no longer shocking his homeland’s ballet traditionalists; his dancers are complex, first-rate artistic tools; there’s even a government-supported “Dance Palace,” slated for completion in 2016 and portending the company’s bold, permanent future.

“My method, my philosophy of theater — I don’t change,” he said, in an interview prior to Saturday’s May 11 performance.

But that doesn’t mean he’s not tinkering with the steps.

“I’m never satisfied. Each performance, I see a little more what really I have done,” he said, laughing and encouraging a nearby interpreter to assist.

Actually, Eifman needs little help to describe the motivations and materials churning in his soul. His repertoire consists primarily of “psychological ballets” based on larger-than-life literary, historical, artistic and mythological figures. Eifman considers Rodin — and the other characters who’ve served as thematic foundations — not so much inspiration, as information.

“Literature and art can only give you a secret to open,” he said. “The inspiration must come from within.”

On Saturday night, Rodin showed both promise fulfilled and dream denied as Eifman’s remarkable company stormed through the turbulent lives of Auguste Rodin and  his lover, muse and fellow sculptor, Camille Claudel.

Claudel was an artist whose mental illness drove her to both genius creation and genuine insanity. Her hunger for Rodin, who abandoned her by turning to his art and returning to his endlessly insufferable wife, Rose, eventually broke her spirit, mind and body. She died in 1943, forgotten, while Rodin lives eternally as a grand master.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that a ballet based on their lives is dense with tragic encounters, epic rage, seething envy and furious love.

Eifman said he spent a year “living in the theater of Rodin,” and it showed.

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Not only do countless familiar sculptural images appear — Danaïd, her curving spine expressing futility and anguish; Despair, a folded human form grasping to contain itself, to name just a few — the ballet inhabits the spirit of the era.

Eifman’s choreographic style is akin to historical fiction and for audience members and critics more attuned to contemporary, post-modern abstractionism, Rodin can provoke twitters. And if the pleading faces turned to the audience are used overmuch (Eifman’s dancers are so expressive, he could trust that the back of their necks convey a world of bitterness or longing), he doesn’t fail to craft a response.

“American audiences are very natural. If they like something, they react immediately. I like that very much,” Eifman said. “Europeans make silence and touch inside of themselves, then react.”

The very young Alina Bakalova (Camille) was dangerously lovable in every way. A hyper-limber lower back turned every arabesque into sensual revelation and parallel flexion couldn’t disguise her exquisitely arched, cat-like-in-their-use feet. Dmitry Fisher (Rodin) proved most alluring in a brief Act II solo. One wishes only that Eifman’s ballet was less prone to poses, linked through gesture to form a chain of movement, and more filled with the lyrical, organic capabilities crying to be let out of the supple bodies of Fisher, Bakalova and Yulia Manjeles (Rose).

Musical choices, ranging from Camille Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre to Erik Satie’s Ginossienne No. 3 to Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, were a provocative counterpoint to the stilted, corkscrewing movement vocabulary. The friction between dented dance forms and harmonic sonorities added energy, especially during Manjeles’ solos.

“Rodin” arrived with remarkable set design by Zinovy Margolin: movable, girder-lined stairways; sculptural grids for creating a living The Gates of Hell; an oversized potter’s wheel used to tremendous effect; and black cloth. The last item, stretched over a huddled body, which pushed it’s way into bronze-reminiscent sculpture, and later, billowing like an ominous, silky cloud, out of which Camille emerged, was climactic. These were also the moments when Eifman’s skill mirrored Rodin’s: sculpted human forms erupted as if out of “thin air” (or solid marble) to reveal mankind’s incomprehensible beauty.

Eifman began his work on the ballet by asking one question: Why do people like Rodin? His answer, he said, teasing a bit, is buried in this ballet. Like a sculptor removing what is not essential to reveal what cannot be contained, audiences find human life — and the world of joy and sorrow therein.

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