American Ballet Theatre


Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY

May 14, 2002
By Malcolm Tay

Eugene Onegin, that classic verse-novel by Alexander Pushkin, is something that I have yet to read. But that really should not stop me, or anyone in the same situation, from watching Onegin, John Cranko’s 1967 ballet version of this Russian literary masterpiece, set to a Tchaikovsky score arranged by Kurt-Heinz Stolze.

One could say that Cranko’s creation revolves around a cad who eventually gets his retribution; or perhaps, it follows its female protagonist from youth to maturity. However you look at it, Onegin heads straight for the emotional centre of Pushkin's tale – how unrequited love, like a stubborn stain on a delicate garment, sometimes doesn’t completely go away. American Ballet Theatre (ABT), for the first week of its season at the Metropolitan Opera House, rendered this three-act ballet with beautiful conviction.

Tatiana (Julie Kent) is shy and reserved, a country girl who is totally engrossed in her romance novel; not even the buzz from her own birthday party arrangements can tear her away from its pages. Her playful, more outgoing sister, Olga (Maria Riccetto), thinks she should be having fun instead, and cheekily takes the book from her. Lensky (Vladimir Malakhov), Olga’s boyfriend, is a respectable gentleman who is crazy about her, and will likely stay faithful to her. So it’s hard to imagine that someone like Lensky would find a best friend in a proud, haughty fellow like Eugene Onegin (Robert Hill), whom Lensky introduces to Tatiana. And that’s when things begin to change.

Hill walked, breathed the part of Onegin. All stiff and straight in his black suit, he is polite enough to offer his arm to Tatiana (as all decent men were supposed to do at that time), but remains aloof, making as little eye contact as possible. He cuts short his duet with her in favour of a cool, calculated solo of his own; vain and self-absorbed, it’s as though he is indulging in the sensation of every leap, every chaîné. He simply cannot be bothered with her. Yet, the young woman, hopelessly bashful in his presence, cannot help but stay fascinated by this cold, sophisticated stranger. Drifting in arcs around him, she is content with admiring him from afar. You can see that interest float into heart-fluttering first love as she, with her arm extended towards him, lightly bourrées offstage in a smooth line. Kent brought a girlish naïveté to Tatiana’s adolescent years.

In her bedroom, the girl decides to confess her love for Onegin in a letter to him, which results in a captivating pas de deux between Kent and Hill. Exhausted from several attempts to consolidate her thoughts on paper, a sleepy Tatiana discovers Onegin stepping out from her mirror to keep her company for the night, much to her delight. This Onegin, of course, is only a product of her imagination. Warm and loving, he woos her unabashedly, whispering sweet nothings into her ear. He is strong, steady, adoring. It is in this Onegin whom Tatiana can place her total trust; into his arms, she can recklessly spring backwards, or take a giant leap, knowing that he will catch her, lift her high above his head, swing her safely down to the floor. The real Onegin would probably choose to play by himself.

Reality, as Tatiana eventually realises, is far from pleasant. Utterly bored with the birthday festivities, Onegin would rather amuse himself with a deck of cards than dance with the birthday girl. Holding her letter, he brusquely confronts Tatiana (when no one is around, how cunning), shocking her into tears. Onegin doesn’t reciprocate her affections; in fact, he rejects her in a most awful manner. In one callous move, he approaches her from behind, as if to embrace or comfort her, curtly pulls out her arms, and shreds the letter into her hands. At this point, she is so distraught that she pays no attention to the mustached Prince Gremin (Carlos Molina), her older, dishy, distant relative.

But that’s not enough. To prove his disdain for her feelings, he flirts with her sister, repeatedly cutting into her dance with Lensky, much to her boyfriend’s annoyance; Olga, stupidly enough, plays along with what she sees as an innocent prank. Lensky, taking this seriously to be a horrible insult, slaps Onegin with his gloves and challenges him to a duel. The two sisters fail to convince them otherwise. In moonlit woods, Lensky dances what would be his last dance, a confused, frustrated solo that pre-empts his fatal defeat. Malakhov emoted this superbly, with the abandon of a dying man. When Onegin wakes up to his error, it’s too late.

Years pass. Apparitions from the past – the juvenile, love-struck Tatiana; Olga and Lensky; Lensky shot dead by his best friend – haunt Onegin. The images dance in his mind, after he sees a more mature, distinguished Tatiana, now married to Prince Gremin. As they dance in the palace ballroom, the Prince proves to be a reliable partner for his wife; theirs is a relationship based on mutual respect. Watching them, Onegin finds himself attracted to Tatiana; he writes a letter to her, expressing his love. The tables are now turned.

As Tatiana reads his letter in her boudoir, holding it tightly to her chest, it seems that she hasn’t really moved on. She begs her unsuspecting husband to stay with her, but he doesn’t. And who should burst into her bedroom but Onegin. (What, no guards?) She hesitates, unsure if she’s doing the right thing as she fends off his embraces. He, emasculated by his mounting affections, is all over the floor, begging her to accept his love, maybe even run away with him. Torn between what is right and what feels oh-so-right, she chooses the former – she rips up the letter in his face, and tearfully orders him out of her life. Yet, when he does leave, she runs after him, pausing at the doorway, leaving her to scrape up the pieces from the ground. Kent was suitably fragile, a bundle of conflicting desires; Hill effectively reduced the once-arrogant man to a pathetic, yearning loser.

We may not understand why Tatiana would still retain any fondness for someone as selfish as Onegin, when there is a man who loves her dearly. Or why she would show any signs of regret at driving him away (because he definitely had it coming). But we can certainly empathise. Perhaps that’s what makes Onegin, despite the slight melodrama, so touchingly human.


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Edited by Marie.

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