Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg
Boris Eifman choreographer
Presented by Cal Performances
May 1-May 3, 2009
Oleg Gabyshev (Onegin), Maria Abashova (Tatiana). Photo: Anton Sazonov.
Boris Eifman has taken Pushkin’s 19th Century brooding hero, Eugene Onegin, and stuffed him into a time machine. The ballet, created for the choreographer’s Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg, is one in his trilogy of Russian literary masterpieces set to dance, preceded by “The Seagull” (Chekhov) and “Anna Karenina” (Dostoyevsky). Mingling music of Tchaikovsky (and not always from the eponymous opera) with the contemporary rhythms of Russian composer Alexander Sitkovetsky and the rock band Autograph, the choreographer creates a new/old story in a series of short but stunning scenes. The stage pictures – set against a soaring bridge of girders with an ever-changing grid – are spectacular, as is the dancing. Anything but subtle, Eifman mines the human heart in motion that is innovative and heavy on the angst. For those who -- like the reviewer -- love the opera, widely considered to be Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece, this will run a close second – and that’s saying a lot.
The opening is stunning. Onegin (the impossibly handsome Oleg Gabyshev) sits drinking with his friends, the Colonel (Sergei Volobuev) and the poet Lensky (Dmitri Fisher, brandishing a guitar instead of a pen). Onegin, the jaded playboy, obviously is neither poet nor soldier but he is the picture of uber-cool. Film footage from the era of glasnost and the dissolution of the Soviet Union are projected on a giant circular disc at the rear of the stage as the men drink to friendship and their nation’s future with Sitkovesky’s pounding music setting the tone. And then the movie changes to ballerinas in tutus dancing classical ballet. Eifman is addressing the history of dance here, as well as the history of his native land. This is followed by an intensely homoerotic pas de deux for the two friends, Onegin and Lensky. The Colonel staggers back on the stage with a bandage covering his eyes. He has been blinded in the fray, perhaps a comment on the vision of the Soviet military. (Volobuev dances remarkably well for a sightless man).
The scene switches to the country, where Lensky has taken his friend in hopes of curing his ennui. The locale is suggested merely by birdsong and kerchiefs on the heads of some of the girls in the corps. Two stand out. The braided, bookish Tatiana (the lovely Maria Abashova) and her more vivacious sister Olga (Natalia Povoroznyuk), who is Lensky’s fiancée. The rest of the story is simple: Tatiana falls madly in love with the worldly Onegin who coldly rejects her as a girlish country bumpkin. Lensky and Onegin quarrel. Onegin flirts with Olga to spite Lensky, prompting a duel at the end of which Lensky lies dead. The tormented Onegin wanders the world, dragging (literally, in this case) the ghost of his murdered friend around on his back. Years later, upon his return, he goes to a party and encounters Tatiana, now the glamorous wife of his old friend the blind Colonel, a wealthy war hero and a power in society. Onegin, smitten with longing and regret, begs for her love and, though torn by desire, Tatiana decides to remain a loyal wife. And who’s crying now?
Abashova is a wonderful Tatiana, a worthy match for Gabyshev who dances up a storm. Among the many outstanding scenes (each nicely outlined in the program with an appropriate Pushkin verse) were the duel, reminiscent of “West Side Story’s” battle between the Sharks and the Jets; Tatiana’s letter scene, a balletic tour de force much as the aria is the centerpiece of Tchaikovsky’s opera, and a steamy, sexy dream pas de deux for Tatiana and Onegin. Then there are moments. Lensky’s funeral has umbrella-carrying mourners slowly promenade down the bridge in the rain as the black-clad sisters take center stage in a pas de deux of grief and consolation. A flashy disco scene where Tatiana and Olga meet new lovers is more Broadway than ballet and the famed Polonaise at the ball is danced by chic, black-clad sophisticates while Tatiana is frantically wheeled across the stage by hairdressers and manicurists, giving her the ultimate makeover. That probably is the only touch of humor in this angst-ridden piece but it’s a very good one.
It is all quite absorbing, entertaining and beautiful to look at. And, as well as the principals and corps de ballet were received by an enthusiastic Berkeley audience, it was not surprising that the loudest cheers of all were for the choreographer. In the world of ballet, Boris Eifman is a power to be reckoned with.