John Cranko’s “Eugene Onegin”
San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, CA
January 27, 2012
By Catherine Pawlick
In a genius artistic move, San Francisco Ballet added one of ballet’s most substantial dramatic works to its repertoire at the start of this season. John Cranko’s “Eugene Onegin,” set to a unique selection of music by Tchaikovsky and first performed by the Stuttgart Ballet in 1965, presents the tragic Russian poem by Alexander Pushkin in choreographic terms. The costumes and scenery, on loan from the National Ballet of Canada, bring the audience immediately into 19th century northern Russia, and from there the dancers take them further into the romance and soul innate to Russian classical literature.
With reaches of birch tree trunks upstage and country-style wicker furniture decorating the downstage area, Act I opens to the dreamy Tatiana, lounging some distance from the others, her nose furrowed in a book. While her vibrant sister, Olga, makes preparations for Tatiana’s upcoming birthday party along with their mother and nurse, Tatiana seems more content to escape into the world of literature. Cranko’s initial depiction of the characters enables us to focus immediately on their key characteristics, thereby setting the context from which the ballet will unfold.
On opening night, a lyrical Maria Kochetkova danced the role of Tatiana with exquisite form. Having seen the Vienna State Opera Ballet perform this version in Vienna just three years ago, this reviewer deems Kochetkova’s utter mastery of this role unquestionable. Her performance began as an innocent girl wrought with the sudden impact of infatuation, elated by possibility, and brought quickly down to tears by a gesture. In her first dancing sequence with Onegin, Kochetkova’s balances en pointe seem suspended as if from a plum line, her ability to hover in arabesques and the lightness of her whisper-like frame a silent testament to Tatiana’s youth. In the acting scenes we watch her character struggle with the still-burning embers of early love as she encounters the disappointment of shattered illusions. Following the passionate “Dream” pas de deux with Onegin – the only time when the two smile together-- Tatiana sends him her love letter. There we see Kochetkova depict Tatiana’s inner turmoil and confusion: hands wringing, pacing back and forth, consulting with a girlfriend. In the solo dancing that follows Onegin’s rejection of her, Kochetkova performed a series of piqué arabesques moving stage left, while her head turns to the right, her unwavering gaze focused only on Onegin as the sun of her universe. This smoothness and grace, capped with dramatic elements, perfectly depicted her character’s emotional state: Tatiana follows convention by dancing as required, but her mind and thoughts are elsewhere, with the man who will not, cannot love her. The effect of this step sequence alone encapsulates much of the ballet’s plot: Onegin’s indifference, his removed position from her world, and Tatiana’s apparent inability to quell her feelings for him. She seems, initially, to be forever looking sideways.
It is Onegin –danced by Vitor Luiz-- who takes her hand first, upon his initial entrance, but this is perhaps out of convention and no more. Luiz’s own dramatic portrayal rendered Onegin a cold, spoiled nobleman whose boredom leads him to commit offenses that bury him, ultimately, in the consequences of his lack of self-awareness. Eyes rolled in snobbish disbelief, gestures slow and deliberate, Luiz turns his back to leave a scene stone cold numerous times, and we see that Tatiana-Kochetkova’s attempts to engage him will never succeed. When Luiz’s Onegin tears up her letter, her tears annoy rather than touch him. Here is a man incapable of human relationship, a spoiled egoist who cannot see beyond himself. It is the poetic justice of the last scene in which his horrific treatment of the “childish” Tatiana is finally returned to him. But when the curtain closes, we feel that “ever after” does not include joy; Kochetkova’s heavenly gaze and tightened fists belie her anger, frustration and disappointment that this is the way things must be.
Few would disagree that Gennadi Nedvigin’s performance as Lensky on opening night revealed a scope of acting talent and underscored a degree of technical perfection that one rarely finds in a singular role. Nedvigin’s Lensky – kind-hearted, sincere, and fully in love with Olga – can hardly leave Olga’s side in the first few scenes, before Onegin commits the gravest of public insults to his honor, stealing Olga during the party, and taunting Lensky openly. Here Nedvigin’s true dramatic capabilities appeared. In a fit of uncontainable, insulted rage, he slaps Onegin across the face with his gloves – twice—challenging him to a duel. The calm, loving dance in which Nedvigin’s Lensky had supported Olga attentively in Scene I then shifts to a mournful solo in which he expresses Lensky’s sadness, desperation, pride, and disbelief. That one dancer covers this range of emotion while emitting pristine quadruple pirouettes, piqué fouettés and arabesque turns that glide soundlessly into arabesque pliés, whisper soft landings, and that all of it is etched in perfect, incomparable smoothness, attests to Nedvigin’s all-encompassing talent. In fact, following this performance, only a three-hour display of Nedvigin’s dancing could offer greater satisfaction; would that all Lenskys were danced by him.
Not to be overlooked, Carla Bianco’s perky Olga, displaying poised arabesques and fluid partnering in the sequences with Nedvigin, and offering a spark of taunting sauciness in the party scene during her sequences with Luiz’s Onegin, earned more than just audience approval. Self-assured and multi-layered in her presentation, this performance earned her a promotion to soloist after the final curtain fell, and a well-deserved one at that.
The grandeur of the Act III ballroom scene, replete with maroon wall hangings, twinkling chandeliers and Greek-like palace columns, opens to twelve couples dancing, the women in long white gloves, the men in waistcoats, a vision of 1820s noble distractions. Kochetkova’s appearance in this scene renders her a new woman: regal in a deep maroon silk, a golden tiara crowning her head, she appeared not a bit of the country youth from Act I. Her pas with Count Gremin, danced by Pascal Molat, is still lyrical, sprinkled with delicate lifts, but decorated with gestures of respectful warmth rather than passionate love. Her head rests on his shoulder repeatedly, and they enter and exit proudly, as royalty. Kochetkova’s Tatiana by this point has evolved into a self-assured lady, the Countess Gremin, one who is able to understand the difference –whether begrudgingly or not—between duty, and passion. She embraces Gremin not out of love and ardor, but out of respect for their shared station in life, and the reliable comfort it brings her.
Throughout the production, Cranko does not imitate the Russian masters. His ability to render line, tempo, and drama in a cohesive whole, incorporating numerous layers of choreographic movement – dancers sweep across the floor, pirouette in place, or soar overhead in airy lifts – creates a three-act scenic masterpiece that has not been surpassed or even attempted by other choreographers of his caliber. His use of choreography to depict the music’s emotion and the characters’ feelings speaks to deep talent in transmitting the nuances of Pushkin’s poem to stage format. That the opening night cast rose to the challenge underscores the capabilities of this company when given a serious dancing test.
One of the final images from “Onegin,” as Onegin throws himself at Tatiana’s feet, and she hesitates before sending him away for good, is a powerful one that remains with the viewer long after the final curtain has closed. This is a testament to a highly professional artistic production with profound statements about love and life, and in this case, with superior dancing as well.
Author, "Vaganova Today: The Preservation of Pedagogical Tradition" (available on amazon.com)