John Cranko’s “Onegin,” closed a banner San Francisco Ballet season, with feature roles danced by a cast both new and old— or as a Girl Scout might put it, “One is silver and the other’s gold.”
Cranko’s corps de ballet choreography is resplendent, not for its wow factor, but because it bears witness to the complex story with empathy and inventive vigilance. He has filled it with mercurial asides by a host of minor players, and this corps infuses a convivial tempo into a setting beholden to routine and tradition. The Santo Loquasto sets are built around clusters of spiky birch trees, in a naturalist gazebo solarium where the women sew or read, or in a clearing in the woods where gun duels redress insults. When the women waltz, dressed in muted beiges, ecru and greys, flashes of petticoats in bright blue or pink, reveal that something vibrant lies waiting under the confected calm. By way of contrast, in the third act, a distressed-rouged ballroom wall supports a glass and lead dome that keeps the lid on tragic secrets.
Lauren Strongin introduces her character Olga with a gentle gaiety, as she pokes fun at her more serious, studious elder sister, Tatiana, danced by Maria Kochetkova. Because the eye goes to the piquant Strongin and the several partners she dances with throughout, you realize just how much dancing Cranko has given to this marvelous supporting character, seamlessly articulated by Strongin. She inhabits her while delivering all the technique and artistic detail that the role requires. Gennadi Nedvigin, in his last run with the company as Lensky finds Strongin’s Olga ceaselessly enchanting, and his partnering opens her up like a bird about to take flight, lending the color of romance to an otherwise agnostic palette. You love this Lensky because you love Nedvigin, a real-life Lensky if ever there was one!
Vitor Luiz risks making more choices in this season’s interpretation of Onegin, all of them clearly aimed at pointing up Onegin’s character deficit, the tar in the ointment that introduces another element—ruin—into this jumble of lights and darks. As his hand wags behind his back while escorting Tatiana, you learn that Onegin is bored, distracted, using her company to kill time while he continues to prospect. All his investment is in his solo, with none left for Tatiana, whom he draws in greedily, or distances with an extended arm. She feels his disinclination—and here’s the brilliance in Cranko’s intuitive choreography: Tatiana invites Onegin’s preference for the distal into her own movements, dancing a mechanical, turned-in bourée toward him in the guarded way a subordinate would. She is the iconic Stockholm-syndrome lover—who believes it’s in her interest to take her cue from her hostile partner—even if it means diminishing or degrading herself in deference to his whims. A surfeit of fellowship surrounds the couple, and the contrast raises goosebumps.
In her dark blue bedchamber, including a blue-lit floor, Tatiana dreams of a romance with Onegin, prompted by a fantasized version of him stepping through her mirror and into the intimacy of her boudoir. The couple’s pas de deux is lusty and large, a sweeping paean to Tatiana’s newly scripted equanimity. Afterwards, a letter that Tatiana had trouble composing before going to bed now finds its voice, and she hastily sends Onegin words penned from the heart.
A series of unfortunate events follows in Act 2. At Tatiana’s birthday celebration, Onegin not only ignores her, but also, in a moment when they are alone, rips up her letter, and pursues a flirtation with Olga, weaving a web that ensnares Tatiana and Lensky. Eager to dance, Olga is “in,” and Lensky goes along to get along with whatever pleases his beloved. In the meantime, Prince Gremin, danced by Joan Boada, makes overtures to Tatiana, and partners her into the wee hours. When Onegin pushes the increasingly vexed Lensky to the side, the mood changes, and the scene shifts to a clearing in the woods, where a pistol duel will settle scores between the two men.
Lensky dances a solo, a dance of honor that presages the likely outcome: his demise by Onegin’s bullet. In his arabesques and sécondes, Nedvigin’s legs extend perpendicular and straighter than the trunks and branches of the surrounding birches. Lensky is the embodiment of the natural world, the very opposite of the insidious and alienated Onegin, who destroys all that is natural. The sisters beg Lensky to withdraw, but in the end Onegin kills Lensky. With one pistol shot, the misanthropic Onegin shatters all that was right in the world behind the garden wall.
In Act 3, we see that years have passed, during which time Tatiana and Gremin have shared a marriage. In the candelabra-lit ballroom, youthfulness is the sole preserve of the corps de ballet: all traces of it in Tatiana and Gremin are long-gone. To a heart-rending Tchaikovsky melody, they unite in a pas de deux that is one of the most remarkable in ballet. Correctly done, it carries a variant of tenderness that only time, seasoning and wisdom can summon. This is Boada’s last and only chance to dance this coveted duet with Kochetkova, a partner who adores dancing with him, and the mood of this bittersweet career finale and its melody, haunt you. Evidenced in his pacing and gentility, Gremin is devotedly in love with Tatiana, and proud of the woman she has become. Tatiana’s now-secure fragility is mirrored in the overhead dome of leaded glass. Onegin, many years gone, and now returned, is their now-temperate observer.
Later that evening, we revisit Tatiana’s bedchamber, where Gremin bids her goodnight, but she is restless and agitated. The Onegin who enters when Gremin leaves has been chastened by time and contrition. He reignites Tatiana’s passion, and this time there is a Fellini-esque quality in this coupling that hints at impending debauchery, with twists in their turns, Onegin on his knees, dragged across the floor by an over-burdened Tatiana, who then falls backward into his arms, as if her resolve is collapsing, defeated in equal parts by vindication and ecstasy. But she finds the inner compass that time and wisdom have built into her. She tears up the letter of entreaty that Onegin has crafted for her. He runs off, and she walks downstage and center, arriving there made whole again by her own hand and Gremin’s heart.