Bringing back John Cranko's 1965 ballet Eugene Onegin for a second season was a no-brainer. There are never enough narrative ballets to satisfy the hunger of audiences, the desire to follow a storyline and see human destinies translated into dance. And what a storyline, taken from Pushkin's epic poem: young noble country girl Tatyana gets jilted by snobbish and sophisticated neighbor Onegin, who also wreaks havoc in the life of her sister Olga, leading to a deadly duel with the poet Lensky, his closest friend. But when Tatyana marries into fashionable Moscow society, the tables are turned. He pursues her obsessively, quite oblivious of the fact that the torture he now suffers is the same he once afflicted.
I reviewed the piece last year (q.v.) and now saw it again twice: Once to enjoy the thrill of Cranko's choreography and the excellence of some of the same dancers; and twice to see the cast SF Ballet had featured as the first and most representative in both seasons. The review was instructive.
Great roles – the roles every ballerina dreams of dancing, are not fit for everyone. SF Ballet's Tatyana of choice, Maria Kochetkova, was praised as ideal because she is still young and girlish and, as a Russian, has grown up steeped in Pushkin: the cultural infusion was supposed to do the trick. A very fine technician, light as a butterfly, Kochetkova is not a born actress, however, and translating emotion into physical expression is a challenge for her. She aptly conveys the shyness of Tatyana, but not much more, and with insufficient nuance. Something small and worried and, at her worst moments, mousy lingers over the heroine of the story who should be in the turmoil of passionate and mortified longing.
Yuan-Yuan Tan, by contrast, proved once again that neither age nor cultural difference matter: you are an artist or you aren't. Most principal dancers aren't, but they can still give a generic, good-enough performance based on technique, grace, and lovely lines, as Kochetkova did. With an artist like Yuan-Yuan Tan, a whole world of meaning shines out from every step – and watching her dance, you notice how emotional truth transforms movements. A quick lift in a pas de deux, for example, that spins the woman around in a throw-away arabesque, will always impress if it's well executed. But it can make you gasp when the emotion in the spin extends the movement from within the body way outside into the stage space, the leg thrown backwards, the far-away point of the foot flying beyond the parameters of the body. The effect ravishes not just with the beauty of the line but with the energy of a spilling out of soul, guts, and extreme urgency of feeling. This can only happen when technique is applied in the service of artistic sense and sensibility – which includes the perfection of musicality, timing, phrasing, control at the same time as a quasi demented trust in the body's ability to go to extremes, unharmed.
The expressive beauty of Yuan Yuan Tan's face is as important in such a role as that of her feet. In the opening garden scene, Tatyana sits on a bench immersed in a book, in the merry bustle of a country estate at harvest time. The eye zooms in on her legs stretched out and lightly crossed on the bench, and the most striking feature of the busy scene is the impossibly long, elegant, curved line of her feet. The dancer/actor's timidity then takes on infinite shadings of held-back feelings in her dancing, engaging and not engaging with Onegin. In the last act, after her successful marriage, her display of affection toward her husband at a society ball retains a subtle reticence. Kochetkova, by contrast, seems to believe in her happiness like the unquestioning queen of the ball.
The presence of true artists is what makes a ballet company great, and this simple fact makes me worry for SF Ballet as the few star ballerinas of the company are getting older (and consistently better), inexorably approaching the end of their career. After the departure of the great Muriel Maffre, Yuan-Yuan Tan and Lorena Feijoo are left to fill the bill of world-class dancing. Director Helgi Tomasson has filled the ranks with beautiful younger dancers, but I am not sure I see striking artistic capacities among them, nor do I see his success in training and encouraging more than fine technique and classic-modern flexibility in this contingent. Most of his second-tier ballerinas are featured insistently for their technical mastery while they are still struggling to overcome psychological blandness, lack of personality, or false selves.
A more artistically daring or sensitive director would of course have cast Feijoo among the 5 or 6 Tatyanas he picked, but no such luck. Instead of raising the bets and letting audiences compare the two very best of his dancers in their rich differences, he tends to opt for the more conventional and all too predictable second-best.
At least Feijoo is back on the bill after a break of a year and a half, and at least she was predictably cast in the revival of Rudolf Nureyev's Raymonda, a piece of pure classical bravura that for her is a piece of cake. Nureyev's so-called One-Act Version (in fact it's simply Act 3) follows the 1898 choreography by Petipa of a medieval Hungarian love story set to music by Alexander Galzunov. The happy ending in Act 3, with a courtly wedding anticipation, is spiced with typical Nureyev challenges, and apart from extra-tricky steps he has added several solos to show off more than just one ballerina.
Once again, Feijoo was not the first casting choice. Vanessa Zahorian opened the program, delivering a bloodless Raymonda, stiff as a wind-up doll in the fast section of the variation; her "Hungarian" gestures as far from sensuous, folkloristic Gypsy sources as the moon is from the sun. (YouTube and SF Ballet's website allow viewers to compare both dancers in the same excerpt. A different perspective opens with the virtuoso "diva treatment" of the variation by famous ballerina Sylvie Guillem, also on YouTube.) That said, watching Feijoo's second of her two Raymonda performances, I didn't see her at her best. While her piquÃ© balances were stunning and her upper body and arms always sensuously supple, she seemed held back, a tad cautious, her fire slumbering under courtly formality -- perhaps because all around her, the rest of the company seemed half asleep.
Her partner, the usually fine Davit Karapetyan, was lumbering without panache next to her, and the other female soloists (newly risen Jennifer Stahl, Courtney Elizabeth and Sasha de Sola) only demonstrated how hard it is to dance pure, virtuosic, classical dance without stumbling, fumbling and balance checks.
Good surprises came from handsome Brazilian principal Vitor Luis who showed a developing acting talent as Onegin, and Jaime Garcia Castilla in a finely improved performance as Lensky, with beautifully extended leg lines and legato movements. Also impressive were various corps members: Charlene Cohen (the charming and flawless 4th solo in Raymonda), and newcomer Wei Wang stood out in the male Pas de quatre. In Edwaard Liang's anodine concoction of male-female sterotypes, "Symphonic Dances" (to Rachmaninov), corps member Wan Ting Zhao got my full attention. She had already impressed me in her tiny role as Yuan Yuan Tan's mirror image in Eugene Onegin. Here, her unusual conviction, fluency and grace made one forget the banal choreography and see a vision of a young Yuan Yuan in the making.
Photos- Courtesy of San Francisco Ballet