Scene4 Magazine: "Onegin at the San Francisco Balletl" reviewed by Renate Stendhal | March 2012 |

Renate Stendhal

Scene4 Magazine-reView

March 2012

Great psychological, even romantic story-telling ballets don't exactly grow on trees. Ballet audiences can't get enough of them; therefore we can be grateful for the many repeats of Romeo and Juliet, Manon, or Giselle, and even perhaps for the duds filling the empty slots, Raymonda, La Bayadère, Coppélia (not to mention the Sleeping Beauties, Nutcrackers and other regular fairytales). 20th century attempts to revive the genre with operatic or fairytale themes are often a sour pill — like the diverse tasteless Carmens, John Neumeier's banal Kameliendame from 1978 and his recent sado-kitschy The Little Mermaid (2005). So it's a double bonus that San Francisco Ballet has dug up Onegin, a John Cranko ballet from 1965 that has not been much performed in the States and never before in San Francisco. This one, it turns out, ranges at the very top of the crowd.

Cranko, a choreographer of South African origin, made his debut at the London Sadler's Wells Ballet Theater, but formed his own company in Stuttgart where he became famous for his talents as a storyteller and his knack for the artistic pas de deux. Cranko's take on Pushkin's dramatic verse poem Eugene Onegin accomplishes for ballet what Tchaikovsky did for the opera of the same name. He created a superb, high-power dance drama that doesn't waste a single moment on any of the old-hat devices of story-telling ballets — those pantomimes and fillers that allow the corps to throw their legs around in tedious peasant dances and let secondary soloists show off in meaningless pas de quatre, pas de six, and the like. Cranko follows Tchaikovsky's libretto for Eugene Onegin very closely, using a patchwork of other Tchaikovsky orchestral pieces that do well enough for his purpose. The new stage and costume design by Santo Loquasto has a certain operatic opulence.

I am particularly fond of Tchaikovsky's opera and therefore went with great curiosity but also a certain skepticism to the genre shift. What a surprise. Any modern choreographer should take a good look at this ballet. Not only has it not aged in 47 years, it shows classical dance at an unusual level of inventiveness, technical edginess, and — most unusual — a capacity to employ the classical vocabulary for psychological meaning (an art that seems to have died out with Balanchine's triumph of "abstract" ballet in the Western world). The effect is like going to an art gallery and discovering a Titian among the post-modern works plastered all over the walls.

I say Titian because the language used by Cranko is sensuous and sexy in its beauty. The psychological astuteness of the tale shows itself right off the bat. Tatiana (Yuan Yuan Tan), the shy bookworm, one of two daughters from country nobility, falls for the haughty aristocrat Onegin (Rubén Martin Cintas) and they take a walk in the park together. One expects a pas de deux but no, we see a solo for Onegin. He literally holds forth in movements of languor and longing, one hand sometimes brushing over his forehead in a solitary vision, as if life were far-away, in the big world he wants to conquer and shine in. It's a touching portrait of a proud and spoiled young man showing off. The shy girl is hardly there, although her desire to admire, approve, even speak is painfully clear. He is not cold, he simply has no clue how much he affects her. He gives her a few conventional steps, arms locked in courtly fashion, but while she looks up at him, he looks past her. 


After this impressive beginning, one awaits the challenge of Tatiana's love letter: what will the choreographer do with this long letter she writes to him during the sleepless night that follows her falling in love? There is a big mirror in Tatiana's bedroom; she is drawn to her own reflection (her double is danced by newcomer Wan Ting Zhao), and the new person she perceives in herself conjures up Onegin in the mirror: he simply enters her room and we see the girl's fantasy of passion. The girl who loves to read romances makes up how he will literally lift her off her feet and make everything spin and fly. Cranko's choreography tends to double or triple the beat of the music, highlighting the excitement with fast, ecstatic steps, lifts and shifts of direction. It's breathtaking dance and it makes sense to show the passionate capacities of the girl as a precursor of what's to come.


Next to the intense portraits of the two protagonists, the jolly, headless sister Olga (Dores Andre) and her fiancé Lensky (Jaime García Castilla) don't quite compare as characters. Lensky, although danced by García Castilla with beautifully clean, extended leg lines, does not get a chance to develop much of a personality. Neither does Dores Andre produce much more than general charm. Here is just a happy young couple in love, not the fatally mismatched pair we expect from the story and the opera. In the country ball, the ballet's tragi-comical scene, Cranko draws an amusing picture of lacking elegance: old, stiff, awkward and clumsy folk fill the room with Russian cheer, irresistibly danced by the corps in mazurkas, polonaises, and gallops.  The scene of Onegin reading Tatiana's letter and giving it back to her with bored coldness, is placed here at the ball and is effective. His flirting with Olga, however, seems poorly motivated and insufficient to lead to the duel with Lensky, which is Lensky's death warrant.

It's only right before the duel that a long, slow solo for Lensky allows for a poetic, romantic expressivity, reminding us that Lensky is supposed to be an introverted poet attracted by the wrong sister. Cranko adds a missing link that neither Pushkin's text nor the opera provides: in a brief dramatic scene both the sisters desperately plead with Lensky, and the scene is repeated at the duel. Also added is the brief appearance of a powerful older man at the ball who makes a polite but vain attempt to comfort Tatiana: Prince Gremin (Damian Smith), the man whom she will eventually marry.

Cranko elicits memories and fantasies of the main characters as flashbacks behind a half-transparent scrim — a passageway filled with dreamy light, over-written by the Russian words of Pushkin's poem. Here, for example, Onegin relives images of the fatal ball and the duel before he returns to society from abroad, then the stage fills with fleeting appearances of women – all the women he tried to love but was unable to love in the years after the duel. He seems trapped in the same net he has held out to catch his many butterflies. It's another brilliant way of filling a gap in the story, showing in one brief scene the remorse, dissipation and loneliness of Onegin's years.


At the St. Petersburg ball, Cranko gives a long, radiant duet to Tatiana and Prince Gremin as the center of society, watched with alarm and jealousy by Onegin. The degree of happiness and tender intimacy accorded them by Cranko exceeds both what is provided by Pushkin's text and by the opera, bringing up the challenge how Onegin's reappearance could possibly shake this marital bliss—and provide an even more riveting pas de deux. The choreographer and the dancers meet this challenge head on, with the same mastery and superb acting they have shown all along.


All the obsessive qualities in Onegin's character erupt with his newly discovered passion. The haughty, reserved man now slumps into slavish regret at Tatiana's feet and in the same gesture envelops her in a creepy would-be embrace that instantly crosses the line of decency. Then he unleashes a storm onto the citadel of marital virtue and again — this time in reality — Tatiana is thrown. The shock Yuan Yuan Tan expresses in her extraordinarily pliant and fluid body clearly is more than a reaction to his assault; it is also her own instant, passionate response. Cranko uses even more high-flying spiral lifts than in the letter scene. Some of the throws seem to come directly from the ice-rink, riveting in their acrobatic speed and difficulty. Onegin repeatedly pushes and drags Tatiana's shocked, willing-unwilling body between his stiffly outstretched arms as if pretending not to touch her while willing to possess her with all his might. When Tatiana tries to move away from him, half-hearted, he is the salve again, forcing her to drag him along on his knees. The duet is unrelenting crescendo and explosion, but the end, Tatiana's ordering him to leave, seems to come a bit out of left field. In the opera a long seesaw of forces prepares a dramatically more convincing temptation and her more believable, hard-won "no." In the ballet it is unclear how Tatiana manages to disentangle herself from the almost-rape. Her rejection of Onegin appears as a sudden final twist rather than a true ending. The way both Ruben Martín Cintas and Yuan Yuan Tan are undone by it, however, has its just beauty.

Photos - Erik Thomasson


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©2012 Renate Stendhal
©2012 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Scene4 Magazine: Renate Stendhal
Renate Stendhal, Ph.D., is a writer and writing coach
based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes and a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives
Read her Blog


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March 2012

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