On 'Onegin'

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday March 26, 2013
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There was a thick line of standees at the Opera House last Saturday night for the San Francisco Ballet's Onegin (1965, John Cranko). The floor of the house was packed; the person sitting next to me had been to the ballet several times already, and was planning to come back for a fourth. "It's so romantic! "  she said, and I couldn't agree more.

If romantic tragedies are often love triangles, this one is a pentagon. The principals are all Russian. "How is it possible for me to speak of Pushkin's poem Eugene Onegin," asked Balanchine in his Stories of the Great Ballets, "without emotion? His work is the beginning of greatness of the Russian language."

It was relevant again in 1965, the romantic era of the 20th century, and it is relevant again now, but for completely different reasons. When Cranko made this dance, he solved the greatest problem that a choreographer faces �" how to translate a story in words into a movement-poem �" by thinking way outside the box. Cranko steals from Keats' The Eve of St. Agnes and turns a letter-writing scene, in which Pushkin's Tatiana confesses her love for Onegin, into a scene where he walks into her dream. In the letter, she confesses how for the first time she's felt the emotions for a real human being (Onegin, the visitor from St. Petersburg whom she's just met today) that she's only felt when reading novels. Cranko invented a new choreographic language, with soaring lifts that sweep her over his head then gently set her down on the floor. He's used the materials of the new Soviet ballet-style of heroic overhead lifts, but translated it into a totally 60s, Beatles-style hallucinogenic imagery, where the constraints of gravity seem as nothing against the druggy sense of eros set free to float.

Davit Karapetyan (Onegin) and his real-life wife (Vanessa Zahorian), who were our stars Saturday night, have the strength, style, and grace to conceal the heroic difficulties of these staggeringly difficult lifts, and make them seem part of the flow of consciousness. He is an exceptionally powerful and stylish premier danseur, broad in the shoulders, huge in the chest, powerful in the thighs and beautifully turned-out. He is almost better built for a villain than for a romantic lead, so the dark and emotionally difficult role of Onegin is perfect for him. When in the last act, he finally feels a reciprocal passion for Tatiana, and begs, implores, abases himself on his knees begging her to take him back, and she rejects him, the drama has come full circle. Karapetyan's power in hurling himself into this passion at the end makes the drama powerful. People started to stand and cheer as the curtain came down. The response to him �" and to her rejection of him, which also showed tremendous reserves of power in Zahorian �" meant that the drama built steadily to an overwhelming climax.

What makes the story relevant today is the similarity of Onegin's plight with that of young people today. There's nothing to do with your life except maybe make some money, or at least not lose caste. You don't want to be poor, unless you're an artist. Pushkin began writing Onegin just after the fall of Napoleon, when the Congress of Vienna reinstated the old aristocracies and monarchies, which all instituted terrifying secret-police forces. The liberal spirit, which the French Revolution had set free, became dangerous to manifest. Onegin's boredom is typical of every youth who came of age in this period. It lays waste to his soul, and is at the heart of his tragedy, and of Tatiana's. She is young, alive, and as a country-squire's daughter, immune to revolutionary hopes. Indeed, she is still vibrating to the idealistic image of Richardson's Grandison when Onegin swims into her ken. She's just a country girl who reads a lot.

San Francisco Ballet dancers in John Cranko's Onegin.

Photo: Erik Tomasson

This sounds very formulaic, but something like this happened to me when I was 13. I became entranced with a guy, I dreamt about him, I told him so, he was horrified, he rejected me and made a scene, and tormented me for the rest of high school. Tatiana is not hounded afterwards. Onegin (in Pushkin) is touched, but he knows himself, very decently tells her that it wouldn't be fair, he's not the marrying kind, he'd hate himself when he started to get tired of her. But what teenage girl could stand to hear that?

The other principals in the story, her silly sister Olga and her boyfriend (Onegin's friend, the naive romantic poet Lensky), and her older kinsman Prince Gremin are all crucial figures. All are the prisoners of their moods. Silly Olga (Dana Genshaft) is besotted with Lensky (the noble Jaime Garcia Castillo), except when Onegin flirts with her. Onegin is horrified by this provincial society, and by Tatiana's embarrassing declarations, and by all these gossipy old people who come to her birthday party. Poor Olga experiences for the first time the attractions of a hot, unscrupulous seducer. She has no idea that she is making poor Lensky so ridiculous he will have to challenge his best friend to a duel �" and he'll be shot, dead. Prince Gremin, in the end, rescues Tatiana from her disgrace. When, after returning from many years of exile, Onegin sees Princess Tatiana and finally falls for her, it's her turn to say, "No."

There are ridiculous scenes. The set is too busy, there are so many birch trees, we cannot see the people for the trees. And why are the genteel girls dancing with the serfs? That does not make sense in the narrative, though the dancing is very exciting. But the ballet itself will tear your heart out, and the dancers are tearing it up.