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Eifman Ballet: 'Onegin'

by David Mead

April 6, 2012-- London Coliseum, London, UK

In his reimagining of Alexander Pushkin’s 19th century Russian classic “Eugene Onegin”, Boris Eifman views events against the backdrop of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a time of great upheaval and uncertainty, and where the rules that dictate how society operates are undergoing rapid change.

The essence of the original poem survives Eifman’s updating rather well. The ballet opens with the corps at a cocktail party early this century, celebrating and flaunting the wealth changes have brought. Among them is Onegin, still brooding over past events. We are quickly whizzed back to 1991 where events start to unfold. As always with Eifman, it is all very sharp, edgy and cracks on at speed. Dances are generally still full of his typical agitated movement, although the ballet is much less insistent than “Anna Karenina”, seen earlier in the week, and all the better for it.

The staging is excellent and a delight for the eyes. Zinovy Margolin’s relatively simple sets work a treat with many scenes set against a really effective depiction of St. Petersburg’s Bolshoi Obukhovsky Bridge. Margolin also put together the opening video of demonstrations and an excerpt from Swan Lake that puts things in context. Olga Schaishmelaschvili, Pyotr Okunev and Anna Yakushchenko’s costumes match the mood and scenes well. They particularly got things just right for the corps, with designer clothes that yell “money” and try to look chic while being anything but.

The whole cast was excellent, with the principals revealing much about their characters. There is the odd surprise along the way, not least the suggestion that Onegin (Oleg Gabyshev) and Lensky (Dmitry Fisher) are rather more than “just good friends”. Early on they dance a quite sexually explicit duet that is full of gentle caresses, the movement all soft and fluid as their bodies entwine around each other.

Onegin and Lensky may be taken with each other, but they are also easily smitten by the ladies. Onegin quickly spots Maria Abashova as Tatyana, who simply shone as she grew a shy, sensitive and plain young girl, her hair in pigtails, her head always in a book, to confident socialite. She was intrigued by Onegin, yet clearly uncertain, perhaps even afraid. Those fears stay with her and come to life later when she is surrounded by demons, from the midst of which Onegin appears and, one assumes, although it is open to some interpretation, rapes her.

Abashova contrasted beautifully with the hugely attractive and engaging Natalia Povorozniuk who danced the free-spirited and girlish Olga, Lensky’s girlfriend. Her carefree attitude eventually causes his demise. It’s Tatyana’s name day and everyone is celebrating in a nightclub. But Onegin flirts with Olga, now looking all grown up and wearing the sort of red dress that screams “come and get me”. Lensky gets agitated and the friends fight, egged on by onlookers. As fight scenes go, it’s rather effective. It’s also not long before Onegin pulls a knife and his friend lies dying. As he lies in his girlfriend’s arms, Tatiana walks on the bridge with Olga’s celebration cake. Her blowing out of the candle not only marks the moment of Lensky’s death, but also of her growing up.

Lensky may die at the end of Act I, but it’s not the last we see of him. Eifman resurrects him as a ghost directly after the interval. It’s a neat and rather effective way of emphasising Onegin’s grief, thus setting the scene for what follows, as well as re-emphasising the feelings he had for his friend.

What follows is Tatyana’s transformation from quiet bookish country girl to nouveau-riche lady about town. To the well-known waltz from Tchaikovsky’s opera she is wheeled across stage several times as she has her hair and nails done, is given a massage and fitted out with a glittering off the shoulder dress. It’s a scene that, for once, feels out of place as Eifman’s attempt at injecting some humour falls rather flat. There’s plenty more glitter added round her neck too. It’s not long before she is married to her General, danced by Sergey Volobuev in black beret and sunglasses.

It’s all in stark contrast to Onegin’s change from confident to broken man, portrayed with great conviction by Gabyshev. He still writes but she ignores his advances. The end comes swiftly. In a gesture to close the door on the past, she tears up his letters. The final scene has a simple yet dramatic beauty about it. Onegin is seen at a desk. He throws letters in the air. They blow away in the breeze, just as his love has blown away. As they do so, many more fall from the sky.

The main cast were well supported by a corps that represents different aspects of society, whether foot stomping, fist waving, protesting youths; the new party going moneyed elite; or partygoers at the seedy nightclub that is trying so hard to be modern but just succeeds in looking tacky. Their choreography is largely effective, save for one number that looked like it would be more at home on Saturday night television, if not exactly inspired.

In the programme, Eifman talks about the Russian soul and wonders whether what he sees as its mysteriousness, unpredictability and sensuality has survived the many recent changes. His ballet suggests that reality is rather depressing. He suggests the confidence we see is superficial, and that not far beneath the surface is a great deal of uncertainty. But put all the philosophical stuff aside. This is a rather striking, effective and, yes, enjoyable, if different take on the story. Even the music, a cocktail of Tchaikovsky and electronic techno-rock by Alexander Sitkovetsky works; yet another reflection of the conflict going on in society perhaps. And of course there are his gorgeous dancers, who do everything that is asked of them, and do it very well indeed.

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