'Onegin' caps SF Ballet season

  • by Paul Parish
  • Wednesday May 4, 2016
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With Onegin, a three-act ballet choreographed in 1965 by the gay South African John Cranko, San Francisco Ballet brought their 2016 season to a sensational close. It is a romance that belongs in an opera house, with swelling music by Tchaikovsky and swooning, soaring use of ballet technique.

It was also a sentimental occasion. Two of SFB's greatest male stars were making farewell performances in major roles, taking their leave of us before retiring. Big waves of emotion came from the audiences towards the stage, and from their fellow performers during crucial passages, that heightened the drama at all points and in no way detracted from it. By the end of the show last Saturday, when Tatiana had renounced the love of her life and thrown him out of her house, 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. I'd found it absorbing only in the great moments, puzzling at many others. 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? Why is the white-haired old lady at the birthday party doing the Mazurka step as deftly as her young partner?

This ballet has come into its own over time. Though it plays fast and loose with the world of Romantic-era Russia, we no longer require that a fictional world be consistent with itself. What's telling is that Cranko, who fled Britain to Stuttgart, Germany, after prosecution for homosexuality, knows exile from the inside, and can put that alienation to use in creating his anti-hero Onegin, whose boredom has become a disease and leads him to ruin the lives of others because he no longer cares.

The ballet tells a story we can relate to: how an emotionally damaged, fatally attractive man (Onegin, danced impeccably by Vitor Luiz) awakens deep longings in a young girl's heart (Tatiana, given magnificent embodiment by Maria Kochetkova, who's almost childlike in her freshness), emotions he can't reciprocate. Through social pressures he can't master, he 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. He goes on to flirt with her sister Olga at the party, wins her fancy, and thus drives Olga's fiance (Gennadi Nedvigin, our finest classical dancer) mad with jealousy, who thereupon grows furious and challenges him to fight. Lensky is Onegin's best friend, and it was he who introduced Onegin to the family. In the duel, Onegin kills him.

The story was first told by Alexander Pushkin, the founding 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 learned by heart. When Tchaikovsky came to make an opera of it, he identified with both Onegin and with Tatiana, since he had yearnings like hers for young men, and he had had young women throw themselves at him. Indeed, he agreed to marry one, then nearly killed himself trying to get out of the suffocating relationship.

San Francisco Ballet's Gennadi Nedvigin in choreographer 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 intimacy. 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. 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 Nedvigin as an elegy for himself; he knows he is doomed.

Vitor Luis 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. Joan Boada, retiring this month, goes out in glory after a magnificent performance as Prince Gremin, the man she married, who makes her float and hover, like she's walking on air, in the beautiful dance Cranko made for the married couple.

As of this writing I have only seen one cast. I would love to see Lonnie Weeks, one of our most elegant corps boys, dance Lensky; it's coming up this week.