American Ballet Theatre’s ‘Onegin’: A chemistry lesson

18 May

My time in Boston actually poisoned me with some doubts, as the penultimate leg of this journey was in fact the only time when I questioned whether zigzagging nearly ten thousand miles across the country to see ballet was worth it. My arrival in New York was without fanfare (as if anybody gets that besides the Royal Family anyway) and bedraggled, I crawled into the city relieved to have all the traveling be over with. Regardless of what happens next—not to mention the insurmountable mountain of work left to be done—I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time, privileged to call this place home even for a few weeks. Still, traveling comes with its baggage and mine came in the form of Onegin, as the production on loan from the National Ballet of Canada seems to have crossed the US with me. Nearly two months ago I saw Onegin on San Francisco Ballet, and now (probably en route back to Toronto) here it is in New York with American Ballet Theatre, the ballet that has come to define John Cranko’s choreographic legacy. Adapted from Aleksander Pushkin’s novel Eugene Onegin, Cranko masterfully distilled important plot devices from the novel, selected infinitely danceable music, and created a captivating ballet. The only real problem with it is that it rides quite heavily on the acting abilities of the lead dancers, a quality that has become regrettably rarefied in this age of extremely technical ballet. However, Onegin reminds us of the power of subtleties and the dramatic impact of theatre. Also crucial is chemistry, which Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes have in spades, a virtually legendary partnership that I had even heard about through the grapevine long before I ever set foot on New York soil/concrete/asphalt—whatever.

This was my first time to see the sensational Vishneva, a principal with both American Ballet Theatre and the Mariinsky Theatre. I had some reservations because I’ve experienced a disillusionment to the current Russian style of ballet, which in my opinion has become a grossly distorted version of what Vaganova training intended to be and raises several questions about what makes for good training and good teaching. However, artists do emerge, and Vishneva is like no other. She can jump and she can move fast, hurtling herself into Cranko’s menagerie of immaculate lifts without hesitation and for all her limberness, she doesn’t abuse it. She certainly gives the full range but uses that to her advantage to add depth to her performances and really flesh out the characters she portrays. As Tatiana, the gentle soul who goes from lovelorn to crown jewel, she maintains an engaging presence throughout, coloring it with all the hues of innocence, heartbreak, nobility, and inner turmoil. It’s a relatively simple story of a young woman falling in love with a man who rejects her, and a passage of time reveals her marriage to another, as the original object of her affection futilely attempts to win her back. Watching Vishneva has a sense of living through every moment with her and the final duet in which she rejects Onegin was a ping-pong match of “Do it! Wait—stop! Get him! Don’t do it! Eek! You go girl!” and the final image of her alone on stage, staring off into the distance is an arresting one, lips pursed with a grim solace. It’s appropriate for a ballet with no happy ending, no forgiveness or reconciliation, which is so satisfyingly discomforting.

Onegin is kind of a male dancer’s ballet though, and more importantly, a great actor’s ballet, o which Gomes gave the master class. You love to hate to see him as a reprehensible character, and even the way he first appears, stalking in the background like a panther was alluring yet eerie, with an air of mystery that makes you want to know more about this man. There’s a moment in the opening solo where he steps into an arabesque and reaches out with one arm and recoils it back in a seductively feline way and really makes it a predatory gesture. Even the beginning of the famous mirror pas de deux, when Tatiana dances with a specter of an imaginary Onegin, of course I knew he was going to appear but I nearly ducked underneath my chair to hide anyway when he did, because Gomes hovered behind her reflection with this spooky, really menacing posture. I do so love the mirror pas de deux—transformation is an iconic theme in ballet for women, but hardly ever for men. Giselle turns into a Wili, Nikiya a shade, and even Cinderella gets a fancy new dress, but the bread and butter role has to be Odette/Odile, and Onegin/Onegin’s visage can be seen as something of an inverse. Just like how Odile appears only briefly to dispatch her trickery, Onegin’s reflection is the ephemeral, deceptive one, but is instead the idealization. However, without a dramatic costume change and because of the realistic story, the differences have to be tempered with both showmanship and subtlety—he can’t just emerge a valiant gentleman because he still has to retain certain qualities and characterization of the real man.

I wasn’t nearly as engrossed by the acting of Isabella Boylston and Jared Matthews, both fine dancers but perhaps miscast with Vishneva/Gomes. The relationship between Olga (Boylston) and Lensky (Matthews) has to be believable because its perceived breakdown sets the events in motion for the fatal duel between Lensky and Onegin. I find Boylston charming enough as Tatiana’s coquettish sister, but actually I think the relationship between her and Vishneva’s Tatiana is what I didn’t find plausible. They certainly don’t look alike and it’s not that siblings have to resemble each other, but each dancer’s unique physicality and portrayal of their respective characters made it apparent that they had nothing in common, and even the most divergent of siblings still have some thread of similarity indicative of kinship. Even Tatiana feels the need to protect Lensky, begging him not to duel with Onegin, but her relationship with Olga is what makes that powerful. Matthews’s Lensky is a stand-up guy, and I found his solo prior to the duel quite moving, smooth as satin and wrought with despondency, but I couldn’t help feel that the sorrow was more based in a resignation to die, rather than anguish at the horrifying idea of aiming a pistol at his friend. When it comes to theatrics you have to make the audience wait for it, and I prefer to see Lensky with both poignancy and valor. In San Francisco, when Joan Boada’s Lensky fell to the ground, it was like my world had shattered and I had to fight back the tears.

It’s really important for performers not to give too much away when they know what’s going to happen next. It’s an area where Gomes excels; that first release of his head and upper back right after he kills Lensky is the first, fleeting sign of remorse and vulnerability, but when he returns in the third act he still has remnants of that pompous cynicism which he brought to the previous acts. When Onegin sees a matured and married Tatiana (Vishneva is a stunner in red, by the way), Gomes allows for the decay of that exterior to happen, rather than making it obvious. This is another moment I find fascinating because of its likeness to Giselle’s mad scene—although we see the events he relives take place behind a scrim, the gestures of reaching out to the phantoms of his past and burying his face in his hands have to be done with the same amount of integrity. At long last, when he and Tatiana are finally alone, do we see him completely disintegrate into a pitiable wretch, and the differing perspectives on the source of his regrets make for a roller coaster as Tchaikovsky’s music runs away with histrionics. Is Onegin apologetic for hurting Tatiana? Rueful of killing Lensky? Or shamefully wanting what he now can’t have…it’s certainly a mixed bag and if you have the magnetism and emotional capacity of Vishneva/Gomes, you may as well go for broke and do it all.

As the super secret formula for superlative storytelling continues to elude modern day choreographers (to a certain extent), I love that Onegin can still be so enthralling and relevant—I’m now more excited than ever to see Ashton’s A Month in the Country in a matter of days, which is going to provide an interesting contrast on a similar time period of early 19th century Imperial Russia. The only problem with doing Onegin and Month so closely to one another though is that casting is too formulaic. Some of the same principal couples of Onegin are cast as the leads in Month, and unfortunately, Vishneva/Gomes not among them. It’s a shame for Vishneva in particular because I think Month is more centered on Natalya Petrovna’s quiescent distress and I would have loved to seen her portrayal. Count me a fan.

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One Response to “American Ballet Theatre’s ‘Onegin’: A chemistry lesson”

  1. avesraggiana May 19, 2013 at 6:57 am #

    I love your paean to Vishnyeva! Right on! I too have harboured deep misgivings of late, of the Maryinksy’s penchant for promoting flex-arinas, in the mould of rhythmic gymnastics or Cirque Du Soleil. I’m not moved or charmed by any of that, and except for the dancers in the audience, no one in the audience notices how high any girl’s leg goes, especially straight men. They just don’t care. For almost a decade now, Svetlana Zakharova has wielded licentiously her trademark of hyperextensions and caricaturely arched feet, and has unfortunately passed on this legacy to the current crop of Maryinsky ballerinas, who can barely move now, never mind dance.

    Vishnyeva reminds me of the way Maryinsky/Kirov ballerinas used to be – steely strong, preternaturally expressive and womanly. How I miss them.

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