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American Ballet Theatre

'Onegin'

by Jerry Hochman

May 15m, 18 and 20, 2013 -- Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY

While it may not do very well with galas, American Ballet Theatre is superb with its bread and butter – full length ballets, whether they be classic or contemporary. A perfect example of what’s great about ABT, and of what could make it still better, was apparent in this week’s sequence of performances of John Cranko’s Onegin.

However, before I address the three performances of Onegin that I saw this past week, recognition must first be given to Irina Dvorovenko, whose performance Saturday evening as Tatiana was her farewell with the company. As I’ve previously written, Ms. Dvorovenko is one of the least appreciated of ABT principals, and one of the most accomplished. Had she been recruited as a ‘guest artist’, perhaps she would have received the accolades she deserved, with a galvanized following to match. [As it is, Ms. Dvorovenko has a passionate and devoted army of admirers among New York audiences (and presumably audiences elsewhere) who don’t need hype to recognize talent.]

Ms. Dvorovenko is one of those rare ballerinas who not only has technical expertise, but an engaging stage presence that makes audience members feel welcome to share the stage with her, even if only in their minds. Her youthful appearance allowed her to play any role, whether a young girl (Juliet) or a mature courtesan (La Dame aux Camellias) with distinction. I don’t know the reason for her retirement from ABT (though I suspect that frustration with diminishing casting opportunities, in favor of guest artists, had a lot to do with it – she announced her retirement after casting for ABT’s 2013 Met season was made public), but whatever the reason, her decision to leave ABT while still at the top as an artist is a commendable, if regrettable one.

And being at the top allows her to move on to other ventures. Those in the New York area know that she recently appeared in a City Center ‘Encores!’ presentation as Vera Baronova in “On Your Toes.” I saw the production, and the adulation she received from critics and full-house audiences was well deserved. Both for her dancing, and her acting (including her comic delivery and the facility with which she played, and parodied, the stereotypical diva that is contrary to her character), she was fantastic. Those who have seen her dance were not surprised. Assuming that her career after ABT continues in this direction (at a post-performance discussion, it appeared that offers were being made), those theatergoers who have not seen Ms. Dvorovenko previously are in for a treat.

In any event, her farewell performance was an opportunity to celebrate her career…to date. Immediately upon the ballet’s conclusion (like all great ballets, Onegin ends with an emotional explosion), Ms. Dvorovenko was greeted and saluted by all members of the company, with the final bouquet presented by her husband, former ABT principal Maxim Beloserkovsky, and their beautiful daughter, and with showers of flowers from the audience that refused to let her leave.

As I wrote in a comprehensive review last year, Onegin is Cranko’s masterpiece, with choreographic images that sear the brain. And Cranko’s accomplishment is all the more memorable considering that he used as his musical framework a patchwork quilt of Tchaikovsky music (arranged by Kurt-Heinz Stolze), rather than the score from the opera “Eugene Onegin” that Tchaikovsky had previously composed (my understanding is that Cranko was not given the rights to use the opera’s score).

The ballet’s story, on its surface, appears to be mere high class soap opera suds. But like the novel in verse by Alexander Pushkin that is its source, it is a mirror of then contemporary Russian society. Onegin is a man without purpose but also a prisoner of his pedigree. He is a nobleman who has nothing to be noble about; superfluous; an aristocrat without a cause. And he destroys those with whom he comes in contact, like blight. Only when it is too late does he realize that the young woman he rejected years earlier as being beneath him possesses the nobility of character that he never had. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

Onto this basic outline Pushkin crafted a perverse, ironic love story. A bookish country girl, Tatiana, falls for this alienating, self-absorbed creature who looks dashing, urbane and cultured, perhaps the embodiment of characters she’s read about and dreamed about in her books, but in reality it’s all a facade – there’s no there there. She dreams of a relationship with him (she imagines him entering her room through a mirror, and they engage in a passionate pas de deux). When she awakes, she bares her soul, and her love, to him in a letter.

But Onegin considers himself a superior being. The next day, at a party in honor of her younger sister Olga’s birthday, Onegin callously humiliates Tatiana by ripping her letter to shreds and depositing the remnants in her hands. With equal callousness, he then humiliates Olga’s fiancé (and his friend) Lensky by dancing with and flirting with Olga. Infuriated, Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel, which both knew that Lensky would lose. Following Lensky’s death, Onegin is isolated, effectively banished, and left truly alone.

Years later, after Tatiana weds Prince Gremin, an old family acquaintance, and settles into a secure but passionless relationship, Onegin shows up at a ball at Prince Gremin’s home, where he sees Tatiana. Now smitten with her, he writes her a letter. After Gremin leaves Tatiana alone, Onegin enters her boudoir through a door that resembles the mirror he had penetrated when he entered Tatiana’s room in her dream years before. They dance a passionate pas de deux. With emotions bared, and torn between her rekindled love for Onegin and her current marital and societal status, Tatiana rejects Onegin, ripping apart the letter he had written to her and ordering him to leave her life forever.

Converting this story into believable theater is a complicated matter, and there’s no single path to getting it right. Onegin has to be rigid and callous, but somehow attractive to Tatiana. Tatiana has to be the sensitive, unsophisticated, earthbound sister, but one who somehow surrenders to this attractive beast of a human being. Lensky is as romantic and loving as Onegin is cold and nasty, but somehow must believably lose his bearings and overreact to Onegin’s advances to Olga. Olga has to be a combination flirt and Russian space cadet, but somehow still convincingly in love with Lensky. And Gremin has to be a reliable, secure patrician who loves his wife, but who nevertheless is a dolt who turns his back on his wife when she needs him to be there for her.

In different ways, most of the members of the casts I saw gave memorable performances. Ms. Dvorovenko and Diana Vishneva (on the 20th) gave their ‘usual’ stellar portrayals, with Ms. Dvorovenko losing the air of sophistication in Act I that I thought marred her performance last year, and Ms. Vishneva, although more mannered than I thought necessary in Act I, delivering the most dizzyingly shattering Act III I’ve seen, culminating with a seething and icy resignation that could stop a heartbeat. [I wrote years ago, in connection with Ms. Vishneva’s Juliet, that she was able to convincingly run the gamut of emotion required during the ‘edge-of-the-bed’ scene in the MacMillan production with no effort; just by the look in her eyes alone. This was similar. There was no scream of frustration; only silent, steely heartache.] And Hee Seo again delivered a towering portrayal in every respect, confirmation that last year’s surprising and gut-wrenching performance was no accident.

David Hallberg, Ms. Seo’s Onegin, was ice cold – even more so than he was last year. Marcelo Gomes, Ms. Vishneva’s Onegin, was downright nasty. Each portrayal appeared somewhat overplayed, making Tatiana’s infatuation with Onegin less credible. Cory Stearns, on the other hand, was a kinder, gentler Onegin, with clearly transmitted sophistication and social grace. One could see how he could easily and perhaps unintentionally emotionally seduce Ms. Dvorovenko’s Tatiana. But these portrayals had unanticipated consequences when more depth of character was revealed. Mr. Hallberg and Mr. Gomes were shattering when their characterizations changed and their facades cracked; but Mr. Stearns’s more human veneer made his heartless rejection of Tatiana and his failure to avoid the duel with Lensky less believable. Nevertheless, all three Onegin performances were outstanding. [And Mr. Gomes deserves a medal of valor for pulling Ms. Vishneva, who had worked herself into a cataclysmic frenzy, through the climactic pas de deux in Act III. She was in another world; Mr. Gomes held her together.]

This viewer has frequently commented about the lack of real casting opportunities given to ABT’s less hyped dancers (primarily soloists, but corps dancers and certain principals as well) both because of the nature of ABT’s repertoire (primarily two-character narrative ballets) and its guest artist policy. However, Onegin is one of those ballets that provides significant casting opportunities (Le Corsaire is another), and the performances by ABT’s dancers in these roles illustrates how frustrating the absence of such opportunities in other ballets is.

With one exception, all three of the Olga/Lensky performances were first rate. Yuriko Kajiya is a sparkling performer. Last year, I felt that her characterization of Olga was not quite up to that of Sarah Lane. I didn’t see Ms. Lane in the role this year, but Ms. Kajiya is doing something different, and the impact, to this viewer, is now exactly right. Her Lensky, Joseph Gorak, still a member of the corps, was very good in the role last year, and this year is better still, with cleaner line and clearer acting. New to their roles this year (at least in New York) were Gemma Bond and Blaine Hoven, both members of the corps. Mr. Hoven’s performance was very promising. He lacks finesse, and there were some timing issues (for example, he moved in response to being pulled by Tatiana and Olga on his own – before they ‘pulled’ him), but he has a sincere demeanor and a crystalline line. Ms. Bond was flat out fabulous, with what to this viewer was perfect execution in every respect. Like several other ABT corps dancers, she no longer belongs there. In the Vishneva/Gomes cast, Jared Matthews provided the most accomplished performance of all of the Lenskys – smooth as silk, believable, and accomplished, with an Act III solo of desperation that could break your heart. Isabella Boylston’s Olga was the only one of the group that failed to impress. Her first scene was disappointing – she just didn’t fit. To this viewer, her performance grew as the piece continued, but I think the basic problem is that she was miscast. [Perhaps I’ll be proven wrong – it’s been done – but Ms. Boylston appears more comfortable being the focal point, either by herself or in an ensemble, than being a spoke (albeit a featured one) in a wheel. As I’ve mentioned previously, she tends to dominate on stage. That’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing; just an observation.]

Similar outstanding performances were provided by ABT soloists and members of the corps in the role of Prince Gremin. Vitali Krauchenka was a stalwart but human block of wood in the Dvorovenko/Stearns cast, and in the Vishneva/Gomes cast, James Whiteside lost the clueless grin he showed during the Act III excerpt featured in last week’s gala, and did an admirable job partnering Ms. Vishneva (although the Tatiana/Gremin relationship was not portrayed as warmly as it was by other casts, it appeared considerably less icy than at the gala). His performance was marred only by his matter-of-fact exit from Tatiana’s boudoir in Act III. Best of the three, to this viewer, was Roddy Doble’s characterization in the Seo/Hallberg cast, with just the right balance of wooden demeanor and heartfelt love for his young wife.

What these performances (including Ms. Lane’s Olga last season) show is that there is considerable company talent that audiences in New York don’t see in lead roles. Whatever the reason, it is extremely unfortunate to see what these dancers can do, and to know that opportunities for them to grow are so limited. Frankly put, it is past time for many of these dancers to be given opportunities to perform lead roles in New York on a regular basis. For example, and based only on the schedule this season and limited to the soloist dancers referenced in this review, at a minimum Ms. Kajiya should have been given a Kitri performance (which I understand she’s done before), Mr. Matthews a Basilio, and Ms. Lane a Juliet. Unless these and other soloists get the opportunity to grow, there is even less opportunity for talented and experienced members of the corps to move up the ranks. And the absence of opportunities leaves experience voids that must be filled, creating the perceived need for guest artists. And the cycle continues.

Perhaps there is a growing recognition, based on scheduling this season that permits more widespread featured casting (and opportunities that may be created during ABT’s new Fall Season at the David H. Koch Theater), that greater opportunities must be given, and that in the long run growth from within is more stable and more successful than growth by acquisition. In the meantime, however, time passes, and with it opportunities. Losing dancers like Ms. Dvorovenko hurts, particularly if it was the result of diminished casting opportunities. But losing young dancers for greater performing opportunities elsewhere (Maria Riccetto, for example) is a shame, and it can come back to bite you. Or as Onegin may have experienced, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

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