In a perfect world, a renowned Russian choreographer would have long ago tackled this extraordinary literary work by Alexander Pushkin that has had such a deep and lasting influence on the development of Russian literature. But one didn’t. Pushkin, sometimes referred to as the Russian equivalent of Shakespeare, first published his verse-novel in the form of a book in 1833. In 1879, Tchaikovsky composed his opera based on the story; in 1911, it was first adapted to (silent) film; in 1936, it was adapted as a play but didn’t get performed due to Stalin’s censorship.
For some reason, the world of Russian ballet could not bring itself to adapt this magnificent piece of literature that contains characters who have turned out to be archetypes for other great Russian stories. The Frenchman Petipa didn’t set it for the Russian Imperial Theater's ballet stage – it would have looked odd in tulle, anyway. Fokine didn’t. Yacobson didn’t. The Georgian Balanchine didn’t. Massine didn’t. Not even Grigorovich set this story as a ballet – and he should have.
For more than 130 years after Pushkin penned what some consider his greatest work and his most influential in Russian literature, no one adapted it to the ballet stage even though it had been adapted for opera, film, and as a play – until South African choreographer John Cranko created the production for his Stuttgart Ballet in 1965 to an arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s works unrelated to his Onegin opera. Oh my goodness, did that push a few Russian/Georgian noses out of joint. [The first ballet about our own great Pushkin story has been made by a South African choreographer for a German company? Do they even have real ballet in Germany?] They not only had real ballet in Germany, but they brought Onegin to America in 1969 and received rave reviews from Clive Barnes who deemed the company The Stuttgart Ballet Miracle. But the Russian/Georgian sniping about this particular ballet continued with crass analogies which even today, as tired as they are, continue to be advanced by the current tiresome critic at The New York Times.
Flash forward more than a half century. The Cold War is over. Ballet is no longer the exclusive domain of the Russians – it never was, but they thought so. Today, Cranko’s Onegin is universally considered his great masterpiece and is now performed on the Bolshoi stage and on many of the most important ballet stages the world over including the Paris Opera and the Royal Ballet. Ballerinas and danseurs – including plenty of Russians – now die to dance the principal roles. But no Russian ballerina has adopted and adapted the role of Tatiana with as much stirring detail as Diana Vishneva, who has chosen it for her farewell appearances as a rostered principal at ABT.
In her penultimate performance Monday evening opposite Marcelo Gomes’ Onegin and Blaine Hoven’s poet, Lensky, Vishneva masterfully developed the character of Tatiana from the naive lover of illusion to the heroine who would choose her loyal but undemonstrative husband over the intense passions of Onegin. In the end, Tatiana chose the boredom that Onegin, himself, had longed to escape from in his own life prior to ever meeting her. He was left begging for the passion that she had once offered him and over which he had humiliated her with his dismissal.
Vishneva's young Tatiana yearned to experience the romance in the novels she could not put down. Her dream when Onegin suddenly appeared through her bedroom mirror to dance miraculously with her could have been a final chapter in one of her books. Cranko’s pas de deux among the shadows and light which concluded Act I presented impassioned partnering that clearly foreshadowed the final climactic pas de deux of Act III. While Onegin’s lifts of her in her dream seemingly gave her wings with which to soar, those same lifts in Act III projected forceful and uncontrolled abandon like Tatiana could never have imagined in her own dream. Where in Act I Tatiana was held aloft by Onegin in triumph, at the very same point in the music in Act III she was bent to the ground on her back with Onegin bearing over her. Suddenly he yanked her into the air in a spectacular jete where her back leg nearly kicked the back of her head. The abandonment and risk-defying movements in the Act III pas de deux were in stark contrast to Act I when those same steps were loaded with tenderness.
Marcelo portrayed the bored, self-involved Onegin in Act I with perfectly timed yawn and a complete lack of interest in what was going on around him; Onegin had shown up at this party because he had nothing better to do. In the dream sequence, Onegin's sudden appearance through the mirror was magician-like. When he partnered the young Tatiana, his own character reflected the exaggerated charms that one would expect only in a young girl’s dream. In Act II, his boredom turned to annoyance over Tatiana’s nonstop attention toward him. A flash of anger and a poorly made decision to flirt with his best friend’s girl suddenly put Onegin in the position of settling a point of honor in a duel with pistols. He killed his best friend who never got off a shot. We tend to think that the humiliated Lensky never really planned to pull the trigger.
In Act III, Onegin, still in a life of boredom, suddenly spied Tatiana at a party and in a split second realized that he should never have let her go. There began the total breakdown of Onegin’s composure as he grappled with the realization that he could not have what he desperately wanted. Marcelo’s Onegin pleaded, begged, and groveled for Tatiana’s forgiveness and implored her to run away with him. In a moment of weakness, she admitted she still loved him and then just as quickly made the decision to reject him. He didn’t take it well – as only Marcelo can do. His final pleading moments in which he encircled Tatiana with his arms and dropped helplessly to his knees registered as a defeat too big from which to rise. Only Tatiana’s sudden motion directing him to get out of her life forever propelled him out the door.
Blaine Hoven as Lensky was the star of Act II. What an incredible solo adagio this man danced – soulful, serious, polished to a spotless gleam. A commanding partner with classically handsome lines, Blaine is another incredible artist who has become visible to McKenzie only after becoming visible to and championed by Ratmansky. That Blaine has not been slowly moved into Marcelo’s big Petipa roles over the past few years is going to be a loss to all of us in the long run. Instead of having many years in which to enjoy his Siegfried, Albrecht, Desire, we might get a couple of seasons, if that. Readers know that Haglund has been driving the engine car of the Blaine Train for years; it’s time to toot the whistle with a little more steam and urgency.
The casting against type of Isabella Boylston as Olga on opening night made little sense. Olga is supposed to be the pretty little sister of the nerdy bookworm Tatiana. Our one-note Olga produced all of her steps and a fixed smile but little in the way of charm.
Roman Zhurbin as Prince Gremin gave us many reasons to understand why Tatiana could comfortably choose his comfort over Onegin’s passion. His respectful, calm approach to their relationship conveyed his trust and admiration. Tatiana may not have had the blissful passion that she had read about in her romance novels, but she certainly wasn’t suffering. Remaining faithful would not harm her in the long run.
The Corps de Ballet was definitely paying attention to details in this performance. They looked ravishing in their Santo Loquasto costumes while dancing within Loquasto’s handsome set designs. Their diagonals of supported rapid grand jetes were spectacular moments in a spectacular performance. Unfortunately, here was one more evening where the orchestra was not always paying attention. A french horn player actually started to play his solo notes a bar too early in a highly audible mishap in Act II.
The H.H. Pump Bump Award, a black lace Jimmy Choo stiletto called Faith, is bestowed upon Diana Vishneva.