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American Ballet Theatre

'Onegin'

by Jerry Hochman

June 9, 2012 (matinee and evening) -- Metropolitan Opera House, New York City, NY

When John Cranko died suddenly on June 26, 1973 while on a flight from New York to Stuttgart, at age 45, it was generally accepted at the time that ballet had lost one of its most accomplished contemporary choreographers. I recall reading commentary that compared Cranko, who was the founder and founding choreographer of the Stuttgart Ballet, to Sir Frederick Ashton - not surprising considering that the South African-born choreographer had roots in Sadler’s Wells and The Royal Ballet. In this viewer’s opinion, in no ballet is the loss so clearly demonstrated as in “Onegin,” which returned to the ABT repertoire last week, in a run that ended Saturday night. The ballet is a masterpiece: it says what it has to say beautifully, accessibly, and succinctly. Every step has a purpose, and every step sings – appropriate for a ballet based on the opera “Eugene Onegin,” composed by Tchaikovsky.

I know I’ve seen “Onegin” previously, but the passage of time has dimmed my memory. I recall seeing Natalia Makarova and Marcia Haydee (on whom the lead role of Tatiana was created), but I'm not certain that these were full performances or stand-alone pas de deux. And I've often seen Diana Vishneva, in my mind’s eye, dance Tatiana (and whose performances with Marcelo Gomes earlier in the week, based on good authority, brought the house down). I remember liking the piece and the performances I saw, and I anticipated an enjoyable double-header. The Saturday performances – Hee Seo (Tatiana), David Hallberg (Onegin), Joseph Gorak (Lensky), and Yuriko Kajiya (Olga) in the matinee, and in the same roles in the evening: Irina Dvorovenko, Cory Stearns, Daniil Simkin, and Sarah Lane – did not disappoint. But I was not prepared for the extraordinary performances from Ms. Seo, Mr. Hallberg, and Mr. Gorak.

In essence, the story is soap-opera dramatic irony. Olga, an effervescent extrovert, and her bookish, somewhat introverted sister Tatiana, are visited at their family’s country estate by Olga’s fiancé, Lensky, who brings his city friend Onegin, who is wound tighter than a drum, to chill in the country. Tatiana is introduced to the brooding, distant, but urbane and charming Onegin, and is immediately smitten. After dreaming of a relationship with him (and imagining the two of them dancing a passionate pas de deux), Tatiana writes a letter to Onegin, professing her love for him.

In Act II, Onegin breaks Tatiana’s heart. During festivities to celebrate Tatiana’s birthday, he regards her contemptuously, as if she were a naïve child unworthy of his interest, rips apart her letter, cruelly hands her its shreds, and demands that she leave him alone. Onegin then decides to flirt with Olga for reasons not completely clear – he’s either villainous, inconsiderate, or clueless. Olga, who seems to relish having fun and is flattered by Onegin’s attention, enjoys a meaningless roll on the dance floor with the dashing Onegin. But Lensky is outraged by his friend’s perfidy and his fiancé’s dance-floor infidelity, and challenges Onegin to a duel. Onegin accepts, and to the consternation of the two sisters, the duel takes place, and Lensky is killed.

Act III is set years later, after Tatiana has married a wealthy older man. Prince Gremin, a truly gentle man who treats her well but has the personality of a block of wood. Onegin attends a ball at Gremin’s palace, and recognizes Tatiana, who had morphed into a beautiful, elegant, and sophisticated woman. He realizes that he made an enormous mistake, asks Tatiana to see him, and writes her a love letter. When the two meet in Tatiana’s boudoir in the palace, he begs her to accept his love, but it’s too late. Although her feelings for him are rekindled, the tormented Tatiana rips apart the letter, hands it to him in shreds, and demands that he leave her alone. But, still in love with Onegin, Tatiana’s heart is broken again.

In this viewer’s commentaries over the years, it’s been well established that I am a softee. I shed a tear at tragedies; sometimes even at comedies, if the performance is sufficiently moving. [For a Vishneva performance I bring a bucket.] I left the Met Saturday afternoon in shock: weak in the knees and unsuccessfully trying to hold back tears. And from observing the exiting audience, I was not the only one so moved.

But it’s one thing for a viewer for whom the fourth wall is easily penetrated to get wrapped up in the emotional gravitational pull of a superb performance; it’s another for a ballerina to so lose herself in a dramatic role that tears stream down her face. During the Act III pas de deux, the dramatic climax of the piece, I saw (through binoculars) what I was certain were tears on Ms. Seo’s face. There was no opportunity for a quick application of fake tears; and I doubt that the liquid on her face was strategically located sweat. Ms. Seo had worked herself into such a state that she not only acted the part to the point of inhabiting her character, she lived it in real time.

Ms. Seo is a ballerina for whom the phrase ‘pretty as a ballerina’ could have been created. Although not ethereal, she is a delicate dancer with an aura of sweetness and simple purity of spirit. She demonstrated several years ago that she is capable of dramatic roles as well – in a review of one of her early portrayals of Juliet, I commented that she showed considerable promise. With her performance as Tatiana, Ms. Seo fulfills the promise. She provided not only a beautifully danced performance, but one with texture and nuance. And tears.

For Mr. Hallberg, who in this viewer’s opinion had underachieved for several years, this performance was a milestone.

In a review of his performance in “Theme and Variations” in October, 2004, I wrote that Mr. Hallberg ‘is becoming a danseur noble before our eyes.’ He is no longer ‘becoming’; he is.

As good as he previously was, this viewer found many of Mr. Hallberg's performances uneven, particularly with respect to his partnering and the strength of his acting. But this season has been a revelation. Mr. Hallberg is stronger in every way than he was just a year ago – he always looked good on stage; now he dominates. He always moved with authority; now he moves with greater control, and more power. He always acted competently; now his acting is more dramatic and more nuanced at the same time. [His Albrecht, which I saw a couple of weeks ago, was an exemplary, complex characterization.] And although the test will more certainly come in a few weeks when he’s scheduled to partner Polina Semionova in “Swan Lake,” his partnering ability has improved exponentially. A year with the Bolshoi has transformed him from a being a very good dancer with a striking stage presence, to being an extraordinary dancer whose appearance alone is sufficient reason to see a performance.

And for Mr. Gorak, the sky is the limit. While not as technically flashy or refined as is Daniil Simkin, who was Lensky in the evening performance, bravura execution is not the most important criteria for this role– the ability to deliver a finely executed, compassionate, and compelling characterization, with the kind of conviction and stage presence that makes the audience believe that he believes in what he’s doing, is more critical. Mr. Gorak delivered exactly that. And perhaps most important, Mr. Gorak has an unmistakable air of nobility – even if a little rough around the edges – that seems somehow genuine, unaffected, and unthreatening (a little Bruhn, a little Bujones – with whom he studied – and a little Hugh Jackman). If Mr. Hallberg had not been as dominating a presence as he was, Mr. Gorak’s performance would have stolen the piece. Mr. Gorak, still a member of the corps, is becoming a danseur noble before our eyes.

Ms. Kajiya has an effervescent, joyous stage persona (where appropriate – she was wonderfully ethereal Willi in “Giselle”), and the role of Olga fit her like a glove. But as I watched her, I felt that her Olga, impeccably danced as it was, was too monochromatic, too quick to abandon Lensky, and too taken with Onegin. She was surprised by Onegin’s attention, but her attitude was that she merited the attention. If she was toying with Lensky, it didn’t look it.

On the other hand, in this viewer’s opinion Sarah Lane nailed it. Her Olga in the evening performance appeared to be as solidly executed as was Ms. Kajiya’s, but Ms. Lane’s Olga had far more character variety and nuance. Her Olga clearly did not want to leave Lensky; and although she was flattered and pleasantly surprised by Onegin’s attention to her, it did not appear that she was flirting with him. Ms. Lane’s Olga was multi-dimensional; she was real.

As Lensky in the evening performance, Mr Simkin delivered his usual solid performance, and even toned down his tendency to show off. His characterization was spot on. But compared to Mr. Gorak, Mr. Simkin’s performance seemed artificial to this viewer, as if he were a young boy told to act like a grown-up. In a sense, perhaps this approach is exactly what the role of Lensky calls for – it would explain Lensky’s petulant response to seeing Onegin and Olga dancing together – but I found it simply unconvincing.

Had I not seen Ms. Seo and Mr. Hallberg’s performances in the matinee, I suspect I would have been more moved by Ms. Dvorovenko and Mr. Stearns than I was. Ms. Dvorovenko is one of the most underrated of ABT principal dancers. It’s not that she gives a solid performance every time out; she gives a first-rate performance every time out. Perhaps had she not emigrated to the U.S. with her husband and ABT principal Maxim Beloserkovsky many years ago, she would have been recruited out of Russia to join ABT as a guest artist and received the acclaim she deserves.

But I had a difficult time believing that her Tatiana was a naive country girl: this Tatiana had sophistication and class, even in Acts I and II – perhaps more than her Onegin, Cory Stearns. As a result, the relationship between them in Acts I and II seemed counter-intuitive: Onegin’s dismissive response to Olga’s letter, in this context, did not make sense. And although I found Ms. Dvorovenko’s Act III riveting and brilliantly executed, it was not as moving to me as Ms. Seo’s. To this viewer, the difference between Ms. Dvorovenko’s agony and Ms. Seo’s was the difference between displaying anger and frustration at the irony of it all, and being hopelessly overwhelmed and emotionally shattered by it.

Mr. Stearns’s portrait was at a lower decibel level than Mr. Hallberg’s. While it worked on its own level, and grew stronger as the evening progressed, I could not see what Ms. Dvorovenko’s vivacious Tatiana saw in him. But credit where it is due – Mr. Stearns’s more moderated performance showed Onegin not as a somewhat villainous bore, but as more of a victim of his own personal flaws. This was an Onegin who recognized his own failings, but was unable to overcome them. It was a solid performance – just not as interesting or as vibrant as Mr. Hallberg’s.

The framework for these wonderful performances was the ballet that John Cranko created in 1965 (revised in 1967) for the Stuttgart. The performances make the ballet look exciting, but the ballet is inherently exciting to watch because of its structural flow, its constant vitality, and the excitement that Cranko applied not only to the two pas de deux with Tatiana and Onegin, which are as gorgeous to watch as they are passionate, but to every dance in the piece. The dances for the visiting guests, analogous to dances for villagers in classic Romantic ballets, are exciting on their own, not just place-holders until the lead dancers catch their breaths. Rather than focusing on patterns, his corps work exemplifies the effort to move bodies through space quickly and energetically. Olga and the corps jeteing diagonally first in one direction across the stage, then in another, is remarkably exciting to watch. And his series of sequential lifts for the corps are visually thrilling. In addition to its movement flow, it also has a sculptural quality – movement that stops briefly to make a dramatic, not just choreographic point.

I am aware that Mr. Cranko and Sir Kenneth MacMillan were contemporaries, and read that MacMillan was influenced by Cranko. Whether that’s true or not, there is a certain structural similarity to their work (at least based on “Onegin”). But compared to MacMillan’s wonderfully crafted and overwhelmingly passionate ballets (“Romeo & Juliet,” “Mayerling,” “Manon,” for example), Mr. Cranko’s choreography appears delicate rather than weighty, dramatic rather than melodramatic. I’d describe it as MacMillan-lite, except that that implies that Cranko’s work is less substantial. That’s not the case. MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet” is my favorite ballet [I may bring an extra bucket with me to the performance], one that I once described as the ‘gold standard’ of Romeo and Juliets. Cranko’s work warms the eyes like silver filigree.

It’s been written that Cranko’s work inspired the subsequent generation of choreographers – John Neuemeier and Jiri Kylian, for example. But he continues to inspire – I see echoes of Cranko in contemporary work by Alexei Ratmansky also, and I’m certain there are others who don’t readily come to mind.

The current ‘new’ ABT production is an import (why stop at Russians?) from the National Ballet of Canada, which premiered this production two years ago. It’s marvelous. The staging, by Reid Anderson, a Stuttgart alumnus and its Artistic Director since 1996, and Jane Bourne, another Stuttgart alumna and choreologist, is superb; the set by Santo Loquasto, abetted by James F. Ingalls’s lighting, is stunning. Like the ballet itself, there is nothing on stage that is merely interesting – it is exciting just to see the sets.

ABT’s decision to return “Onegin” to the repertory is a breath of fresh air. Based on audience response, ABT has a hit on its hands, which it should showcase again soon. Is it too much to invite ABT to return Mr. Cranko’s “The Taming of the Shrew” to the repertoire as well?

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