Betrayal in three acts

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday January 31, 2012
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In Onegin, a three-act ballet new to us by the gay South African choreographer John Cranko, San Francisco Ballet have a hit on their hands, a romance that belongs in an opera house. Onegin tells a story without words but with thrilling, intricate, and very bold use of ballet technique. And there's music by Tchaikovsky.

By the end of the show last Friday, when Tatiana had renounced the love of her life and thrown him out of her house, it might as well have been Tosca �" the thousand people sitting on the orchestra floor rose and cheered as if this gave a new meaning to the word ballet.

I did not feel that way myself, though I'd admired the dancers' conviction and their delivery of the thrillingly dangerous choreography, as well as the delightful score and how exquisitely the musicians played. I'd found it absorbing only in the great moments and puzzling at many moments. Why are these young ladies dancing with the field hands? Why do the porch columns have to cramp the dancing? Why do all those birch trees cut up the stage picture so you can't see the outlines of the dancers? Why are there unskilled mimes botching these important minor roles?

Certainly, the piece is a great acquisition for the company. SFB has the dancers to put this ballet across. The costumes and sets are rented, they can find better; they could draw from their stock of character dancers to fill in the background. Onegin gives tremendous dramatic roles to the principal dancers, and sweeping expansive choreography to the corps, that use the steps and technique of ballet itself to advance the drama in every significant way.

San Francisco Ballet's Gennadi Nedvigin and Clara Blanco in John Cranko's Onegin. (Photo: Erik Tomasson)

And it tells a story we can relate to: how an emotionally damaged, fatally attractive man (Onegin) awakens deep longings in a young girl's heart (Tatiana), emotions he can't reciprocate, and through social pressures he can't master fails to meet the situation honestly, rejects her abruptly in public �" at her birthday party, no less. Onegin then impulsively acts out his compulsive need to charm, goes on to flirt with her sister Olga at the party, wins her fancy, thus driving Olga's fiance mad with jealousy, who grows furious and challenges him to fight. Oh, and Lensky is Onegin's best friend, and it was he who introduced Onegin to the family. And in the duel, Onegin kills him.

The story was first told by Alexander Pushkin, the first great genius of Russian literature, in a series of poems published serially in magazines in the 1820s; in all, there are about 400 sonnet-like stanzas, which many Russians have literally learned by heart. Nabokov's translation has two whole volumes of notes. When Tchaikovsky came to make an opera of it, he identified with both Onegin and with Tatiana, since he had yearnings like hers (though they were for young men), and he had had young women throw themselves at him; indeed, he agreed  to marry one, and then nearly killed himself trying to get out of the suffocating relationship.

San Francisco Ballet's Maria Kochetkova and Pascal Molat in John Cranko's Onegin. (Photo: Erik Tomasson)

The tremendous things in this ballet all flow from these tensions. Cranko turned letters and speeches brilliantly into pas de deux. Tatiana's letter to Onegin, Cranko turned into a dream-vision where he steps through a mirror into her life and sweeps her off her feet. The lifts are breath-taking �" he throws her overhead, over his back, then lays her down gently on the floor, as if he had the strength of a vampire and the tenderness of a lover. Again and again, he rings changes on these unbelievable lifts (which require partnering skills of unsurpassed community of intention). They are an objective correlative for young love. It's no accident that choreography like this �" the pirouette that turns into a caress, the leap that ends in racking sobs �" developed in the 1960s, during the era of flower power. Cranko had already made a glorious Romeo and Juliet; had he lived (he died in a freak allergic-reaction accident), what would he have made?

What we do have is these duets, and some equally wonderful solos; Lensky's long lamentation before the duel was gloriously danced by Gennadi Nedvigin, our finest classicist, as an elegy for himself; he knows he is doomed, like Wilfred Owen.

Vitor Luiz gave tremendous depth to Onegin's alienation. All paths are blocked for him. He has no way out. He's not just a cad. He has seen a ghost. His spirit may have died with Napoleon and the last hopes of the French Revolution; what he's lost it's impossible to say, but when he returns from exile and finds Tatiana married and happy, and suddenly feels some emotion, Luis made us  feel it was the first time in a long time that he'd felt anything except guilt and remorse.

Maria Kochetkova soars through the lifts of the first act, she suffers in the second, she becomes very powerful in the last.

As of this writing, I have seen only one cast. There were four, and each is likely to have danced in a different way. Our Olga, Clara Blanco, was promoted within SFB to soloist that night. The next day's Olga, Dores Andre, was also promoted to soloist on the spot. Clearly, this ballet is in our future, and we can look forward to seeing them grow into these roles.