San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, CA
January 27, February 1 and 2, 2012
by Rita Felciano
Copyright © Rita Felciano 2012
John Cranko's "Onegin" is brave but not first-rate. Cranko tried, and to large extent succeeded, in creating a character-driven ballet. But in some places "Onegin" feels like the work of a young choreographer who has models ("Giselle", "Romeo and Juliet", "Nutcracker") but who has not yet found a way to make them his own. This in spite of the fact that, when he made "Onegin" in 1965, Cranko had choreographed for over twenty years. Still the Pushkin adaptation was only his second three-act ballet, after the 1962 "Romeo and Juliet."
Cranko's propensity towards repeating favorite phrases twice or even three times in a row doesn't help. By drawing attention to themselves almost in a "look what I can do" manner, they flatten the dances' intended thrust. Sometimes, as in the Corps coming back for another set of grand jetés, it is all in good fun though, perhaps, not exactly subtle. But at other moments, these repetitions pull the choreography towards cliché.
The dances for the Corps -- rustic villagers and stiff-necked aristocrats -- are just plain dull. Cranko appears to have poured his considerable creative energy and ingenuity into his main characters. He rethought narrative in his own terms but for the Corps he stuck to convention. That mismatch is often jarring.
Yet despite considerable shortcomings, "Onegin" is easy to love; audiences in the three performances I saw were ecstatic. The story telling is clear; the characters layered. Every scene pushes the drama/melodrama a step ahead. The melding of acting and dancing -- Cranko's greatest achievement -- is superb. The ballet also gives dancers, who have been told all their lives "not to act', a rare opportunity to draw on a wider range of their expressive potential. San Francisco Ballet has the artists to bring this off; they cannot be faulted if the material is not better than it is.
As coached by Stuttgart Ballet's Artistic Director Reid Anderson and Cranko stager Jane Bourne, SFB gave "Onegin" a finely detailed, dramatically cogent interpretation. The uneven design (by the usually superb Santo Loquasto) is borrowed from the National Ballet of Canada. The Garden scene has something decrepit about it with portico columns that look like leftovers from classical architecture and spindly birch trees that will never sprout a leaf. Loquasto's bed for Tatania, however, was inspired. Monumental, it had something tower-like, suitable for a fairytale princess, about it. The workman-like Tchaikovsky pastiche had moments when you longed for the "real" Tchaikovsky but it helped that the SFB orchestra (Martin West at his usual excellent self) played it so well.
Of the three different casts I saw, each brought its own shading to the work. (I did not see Yuan Yuan Tan/Ruben Martin Cintas and Jaime Garcia Castilla/Dores Andre.)
On opening night the impossibly handsome Vitor Luiz (Onegin) initially recalled Mr. Darcy without the latter's impeccable manners. When he exploded and grabbed the first object at hand, which happened to be the flirtation-inclined Olga (Clara Blanco), you wondered whether he did so because he was furious at himself or at the impetuous girl who had put him into that position. Since Onegin reveals himself piece-meal, the dancer needs to pull these strands together. Luiz did it convincingly, even in his own short "dream" ballet in which other liaisons descend on him like bothersome gnats.
The exquisite Maria Kotchekova danced Tatiana with a stunning febrile intensity--softly stitched bourrées, a back that achingly arched and feet that flew. As Prince Gremin's (Pascal Molat at his most solicitous) wife, she still seemed young, cuddling up almost kitten-like. In the final scene, she however, didn't quite evince the maturity and strength of will demanded of the role. I would like to see her again in five years.
Gennadi Nedvigin's refined Lensky was a joy to watch, from the elegant opening solo to the last heart-breaking one in which, again and again, he reached out and found only emptiness. He partnered Olga gently but with zest, and his becoming unmoored had a clear trajectory until he seemed to take recourse to a very conventional act out of sheer desperation. Here was a man, supposedly a poet, to whom life had thrown a curve ball. When Onegin accepted the challenge, the two friends looked at each other, both realizing the finality and absurdity of what had happened. For a moment the world stood still. It was that performance's single moment of real tragedy.
In another cast, Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan were not ideally matched. He partnered her strongly in the two big duets but he doesn't seem to be a dramatically expressive dancer. When repeatedly, he walked away from Tatiana in that non-duet, he appeared almost as if he had simply forgotten her. Karapetyan came most alive in that stabbing footwork duet with Olga, aimedd stiletto-like at Lensky (Taras Domitro). Dana Genshaft gave an eye-opening turn to Olga. She started out as your average village girl but revealed a streak of coarseness as she ambitiously tried to have it both ways -- Lensky and Onegin. (No wonder Pushkin married Olga off to a Cossack.)
With Zahorian's young and intelligent Tatiana, you believed that she read Scott Richardson, Rousseau, de Stael and Goethe with some understanding. In the "Mirror" duet her Tatiaia was overjoyed and exuberant, almost giddy at what was happening. But Zahorian's great moments came in the two final duets. In the celebration of her loving relationship with Gremin (Quinn Wharton), she gratefully reveled in the present and also seemed to look back at where she had come from. But as the final duet shows, that calm security was only skin deep. As the past returned in the figure of Onegin, it almost destroyed her. Wanting to and not wanting to give in, it took every ounce of her strength to make the break. Zahorian was magnificent.
But perhaps "Onegin's" most moving -- breath-takingly nuanced -- performance came by way of Sarah Van Patten and Pierre-François Vilanoba. They showed how, in fact, they were kindred souls and in other circumstances might have been ideally matched. Together the two dancers overcame whatever limitations the choreography had given them. It almost made you believe that dancers are the dance.
Isaac Hernandez was a very young village boy, Lensky, partnering Courtney Elizabeth's rather one-dimensional village beauty.
There is little haughtiness or boredom in Vilanoba's Onegin though he certainly lived in two worlds. In his first encounter with Tatiana, again and again his gaze wandered off, ever the Romantic looking for something unattainable. And this Tatiana understood and loved him for it. The bedroom duet became less obviously virtuosic as Vilanoba became the lover Tatiana wanted to see. Here his maturity as a dancer became an asset instead of a handicap. Partnering Olga, particularly in the second duet, however, they unleashed a destructive force that approached the demonic. It looked almost as if in his fury, he was perfectly willing to tear into shreds the whole social structure.
Van Patten's growth from the quiet, introspective girl to the woman who has to fight for her soul had the inevitability of evolution about it. She knew what she had to do when, almost despite herself, she pursued Onegin in that traveling solo which unleashed his frenzy. Their final duet was great theater but also emotionally wrenching. Going into that scene, Van Patten snapped at Gremin (Tiit Helimets), clearly terrified of encountering Onegin again after that long look she had given him at the ball. Gaining strength from Gremin's embrace, she pulled herself together into icy stillness with those big eyes of hers staring straight ahead. But then she quickly melted almost to the point where she had no more strength -- Van Patten's sheer sense of fatigue was stunning -- to either physically or emotionally to resist the desperate, and here almost evil Vilanoba. Onegin's and Tatiana's became a titanic struggle of interlocking bodies and spirits whose outcome was by no means certain until the simple act of tearing up that "heaven-sent" letter decided the outcome.