San Francisco Ballet’s choice to present John Cranko’s Onegin for the past two seasons was an inspired one. One wonders what Cranko, who was much admired by his dance colleagues for his precocious insight and sensitivity to the vicissitudes of the human personality, might have had to say about this year’s production, and its consequences for those cast to dance it. Due to injuries and a spate of heroics in casting changes and fractious reactions within the company to them, roles were shuffled, with one of the results being that Cory Stearns, a dancer from American Ballet Theatre was brought in two days before opening night to dance the title role, and partner Yuan Yuan Tan, the second-cast Tatiana. In the opening night cast, Joan Boada was put in for an injured Gennadi Nedvigin as Lensky. Given the rash of uncertainties, harsh decisions and tensions, the surviving cast, under the stouthearted tutelage of choreologist Jane Bourne, soldiered through with a show that had its ups and downs, but mostly ups.
The evocative Santo Loquasto-designed sets and costumes were Stuttgart Ballet’s, which co-produced the work with SFB. The drop we see in the beginning is a parchment-like sheet of handwritten words penned in faded brown ink, with the name “Eugene Onegin” prominent in the foreground. The curtain rises on Madame Larina’s Garden, where she and her younger, audacious, and energetic daughter Olga (Clara Blanco) and Nurse are seated sewing a dress for the older, and more contemplative and serious sister Tatiana’s upcoming birthday celebration. A semi-circle of birches creates an enclosure, and when Olga takes dainty steps toward her sister for the ostensible purpose of measuring the dress (but really to engage her in the inevitable sewing circle gossip), Tatiana, who is stretched out on the floor reading a book, simply shrugs. She couldn’t be less interested in intrigue.
Shannon Rugani leads the women’s corps de ballet onto the stage, where the women dance a perky combination of fouetté jumps and saut de basque turns until a visitor turns up, and he is the poet Lensky (Joan Boada), Olga’s fiancé. Olga is delighted to see him, and dances a flirtatious series of jetés and a manège to welcome him. She finishes by blowing kisses and pressing her half-extended arms down in excitement, as if to restrain them from being more demonstrative. The way that the arms move perpendicular to the vertical birches creates a unique effect in which the dancer and the set momentarily unite to become a singular element portending heightened excitement.
Lensky is gracious, gallant, and exudes all the charm that one expects from a man of his high station. Onegin (Vitor Luiz) enters, and without much ado, seems to take Tatiana in hand, offering the most fleeting presentiment of danger. He ushers her out of the scene and into the wings.
Boada is at times well placed, and on his leg, and at others, he is not, seeming to struggle against his own joints to achieve a lengthened line. Considering that he was put in for an injured Gennadi Nedvigin, with scant rehearsal time in a busy schedule, one has to say that he at least enabled the story to be told in a believable way, and at most showed a quotient of delight in partnering Blanco that I have not seen in him before.
Blanco masters details that imbue Olga with a coquettish, playful energy. Blanco observes all that goes on about her without ever abandoning Olga, and at the same time, sustains beautifully pointed feet, strong, yet delicate, as Lensky lifts her in en dehors turns over his shoulder. By use of her eyes and head, she cleverly imparts the suggestion that the audience use theirs to follow the action. To the accompaniment of sustained notes, Boada raises her into an en l’air cloche sequence that goes gossamer.
Onegin returns with Tatiana, who carries her book. As they walk hand in hand, he places his free one behind his back and waves it, as if his mind is elsewhere, as if her company is somehow a distraction from his actual interests, and signaling his detachment—from her. As chidren, we all met this man (and Luiz does him justice in every way), when we ventured out to a friend’s house to play, and came face to face with his or her overly formal, but utterly distracted father. Were we to run into him in our comings and goings, he would scarcely take the time to greet us. Though Tatiana descends from a lift in a most sensual manner, Onegin doesn’t notice. Instead he strikes self-conscious poses that are clean, almost antiseptically so. It is as if Onegin is having conversations in his head, and takes long preoccupied lunges as Tatiana bourrées right past him, observing him as if he were some strange species of human being. As women have met this man, and see him as only women can, someone disengaged from consideration, courtesy, thoughtfulness, and genuine regard for fellow human beings. We ask ourselves, and each other, “Why does he think he can treat people this way?” The cynical answer is always: “Because he can.” Each dancer retreats to the wings, alone.
Benjamin Stuart leads a jaunty group of men, arm in arm, in the Russian folk dance, the Kazatsky, with its hallmark flexed-footed jumps. The women dance in a circle, arms and hands held high. As the leaders, Olga and Lensky emerge through the lines, both of them energetic folkloric dancers. They dance fast grand jetés. The drop descends and the characters dance in front of it as the scene changes to Tatiana’s bedroom.
Tatiana is in bed, but cannot sleep. She carries her candle to an upstage full-length mirror. She then sits at her writing desk and begins to imagine writing a letter. She is too excited to stay with her thoughts, and runs away and then back. Even after being tucked in, she lies awake.
Having reveries by candlelight, she will cross over into actual dreaming as she makes her way to the mirror again to look for what is beyond it, and finds Onegin. Holding back nothing, she falls toward him with her back arched. He catches her, and slides her over his arm onto the floor, presaging the ups and downs that continue over the course of their interchanges, but in this instance, he is open and vibrant, instead of cold and uninterested. We see none of the static personality we saw formerly. He thus presents Tatiana with the opening she has been looking for, sometimes consciously, sometimes blindly, and she responds with wholly articulated turns in the lifts he enables. For once in this contemplative girl’s life, she exercises courage instead of caution. A flood of harp music affirms the romantic trepidation of a bedroom, her bedroom, a place, one assumes, where no male stranger has ever before set foot. We are transported to the unreal excitement of that polarity: everything that is most familiar suddenly recedes in the presence of the man or boy who it was unthinkable could ever appear in our bedroom fully present and alone with us. She drapes her body across him, her head hanging over his shoulder, and once again drops to the floor, her legs stretched along it in a gesture of full surrender. It is as if this pas de deux was made so that Onegin could teach Tatiana to fly. She follows in the wake of the shapes he models. They offer her courage, and as he lifts her, for the first time, she holds her horizontal position with the directness of an arrow.
Tatiana and Onegin gather more verve as they dance. She is zephyr-like as she blows through the steps, and then he leaves her to finish her port de bras on the floor. We see sunflowers in a corner vase, and the mirror as it was before he entered through it as if it were a door. This room will never be the same for her as she returns to her letter writing, now inspired to sign her name definitively and send the letter off with the maid.
The next scene opens on a salon where a party is in progress. Onegin is very much the man of the hour as he encounters one woman after the other, toying with their attentions, almost as if he was meeting some self-imposed obligation. When he is at last alone with Tatiana, he tries to return her letter, and she refuses it, and finally (just before guests begin to return to the scene), he rips it to shreds in front of her. At this point, something happens on stage that is very odd: When Tatiana begins to weep, the audience laughs most inappropriately, and one assumes that those laughing are the audience members who are not familiar with the story, and perhaps seeing the ballet for the first time, because this is the ballet’s climax, and the heartless rejection of Tatiana by Onegin is one of the most psychologically painful moments on the ballet stage, and not a laughing matter. The impulse to laugh may have come from Kochetkova’s unfortunate choice to mime sobbing while hyperventilating. The effect was to undo a dramatic moment that must read perfectly in order for the denouement to follow logically and integrally. It makes one wonder, with all the folderol about casting, whether coaching of this key moment got lost in the literal shuffle. Kochetkova, while technically adroit as always, seemed to lose the thread of Tatiana, a character who is not simpering, but vulnerable. If she isn’t fully in character, it challenges those who interact with her most intimately, Olga, Onegin, and Gremin (whom she eventually marries), to find their characters through means other than working against or with Tatiana’s sensitivity.
Interestingly, while Boada’s dancing wasn’t the best in his career, he did show dramatic strengths that have never before been in evidence so forcefully. As Lensky, it is clear that he adores Olga, and while tolerating Onegin’s stepping over the line in his initial advances toward Olga, develops a slow jealous burn that provokes a pistol duel with Onegin that results in his death. Olga parlays the attentions of both men quite well, remaining very much in the present with both of them, dancing gaily throughout. When she is with Lensky, it is clear that he is dear to her, and when she is with Onegin, it is clear that she is enjoying the new attention that is coming her way. Unaware of both the passion and discord between Onegin and her sister, she blithely lives her life in the insouciant way she always has—until tragedy strikes the foursome.
In a scene that opens many years later, we see one of the most unusual and tender pas de deux in the history of ballet. It is between Gremin and Tatiana. It is tender because, though they are not a passionate couple, they share the kind of great affection of those who have lived through some terrifying moments and taken solace in one another’s grace. Pascal Molat’s Gremin is a masterpiece. He dances with tremendous skill on the one hand, and displays the kind of seasoned restraint in love that is his whole purpose, if not in his own life, then in Tatiana’s. The reason the pas de deux is unusual is that it evokes the affection between two older characters, without sacrificing any of the balletic exigencies, and it is not easy to dance. In no way does it “show” age by offering scant or simplified choreography. In fact, because of the challenge to convey age and deep love, it is doubly encumbered, and perhaps because of that is difficult to dance, but is welcomed as a treasured addition to a dancer’s repertoire. Kochetkova comes back to life here, and just in time, because Onegin enters the scene of a party, and rediscovers Tatiana, suddenly recognizing her virtues, and again finds himself in her bedroom, dancing a passionate invitation to pick up where they left off. She is swept off her feet, but not fatally. In spite of her enchantment, she comes to terms with whom she now is, and what Onegin’s earlier behavior wrought, not only in her life, but also in that of the foursome who ended up with ashes in their mouths because of his destructive inclinations. In spite of her enchantment, she takes inventory, and when Onegin hands her a letter, presumably an apology and/or an appeal, she tears it up, and the curtain rings down on the bitter irony that the man who does what he does “because he can” is the one who is left to suffer with the wreckage of his own making.
Toba Singer, author of “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), was Senior Program Director of the Art and Music Center of the San Francisco Public Library and its dance selector until her retirement in 2010. Raised in The Bronx, she graduated from New York City’s School of Performing Arts with a major in Drama, the University of Massachusetts with a BA in History; and the University of Maryland with an MLS. Since high school, Singer has been actively engaged in a broad range of pro-labor, social, and political campaigns. She has lived, worked, organized and written in Baltimore, Boston, The Bronx, Cambridge, Charleston, West Virginia, Jersey City, Richmond, Virginia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., working in steel mills, chemical refineries, garment shops and as an airlines worker; also editing, teaching and as an office worker. Singer has contributed articles to the “Charleston Gazette,” “San Francisco Chronicle,” “Dance Magazine,” “Dance Europe,” “City Paper,” “Provincetown Advocate,” “Voice of Dance,” CriticalDance.com, “InDance,” and “Dance Source Houston.”
Singer returned to the studio to study ballet after a 25-year absence, and in 2001, was invited to become a founding member of the board of Robert Moses’ KIN dance company. Singer studied ballet with Svetlana Afanasieva, Nina Anderson, Perry Brunson, Richard Gibson, Zory Karah, Celine Keller, Charles McGraw, Francoise Martinet, Augusta Moore, E. Virginia Williams, and Kahz Zmuda; and Modern Dance with Cora Cahan, Jane Dudley, Nancy Lang, Donald McKayle, Gertrude Shurr, and Zenaide Trigg. Her son James Gotesky dances with Houston Ballet. Singer lives in Oakland, California, with her husband Jim Gotesky.