Black Letter: San Francisco's Onegin at the War Memorial Opera House

Categories: Dance

onegin_kqed_final.jpg
Eric Tomasson.
Maria Kotchetkova as Tatiana and Vitor Luiz as Onegin.
By Irene Hsiao

Reading and writing occupy a certain idleness; the life we perceive in text is not real, and time spent writing is time outside of action. Thus a verse narrative that has a heroine who reads romance novels and two of its central dramatic moments taking place in the form of letters hardly seems the ideal subject of a ballet. Yet John Cranko's 1965 Onegin, restaged at the San Francisco Ballet by Reid Anderson and Jane Bourne in 2012 and revived at the War Memorial Opera House March 21-28, negotiates the tension between the visceral and the visionary with powerful narrative impact.

Cranko achieves this retelling of Pushkin's story through his use of psychological vignettes that walk the line between illusion and experience, neither fully the fantasy of dream sequence nor without the gravity of real human contact. Cranko also effectively uses the device of the mirror: Olga spots her betrothed, Lensky, through a looking glass, and Tatiana first sees Onegin through the same one -- an effect magnified in the large mirror that serves as an entrance and focal point during the letter-writing pas de deux, emphasizing that we see only the other that we envision. A similar play on vision works in the card trick Onegin performs to seduce Olga in Act II: the audience cannot see what makes it work (or, indeed, if it does work), putting us in the same boat as the devastated Lensky, who witnesses his friend's treachery, not his charm.

onegin ballerina.jpg
Eric Tomasson
Maria Kotchetkova as Tatiana in Onegin.
On closing night, the sprightly and flirtatious Dana Genshaft was an ideal Olga, casually shrugging off her dalliance with Onegin and darting about playfully on quicksilver legs. Vanessa Zahorian as Tatiana was sweetly awkward as the bookish sister, romantically extravagant in her letter-writing scene, and thrillingly convincing in her last encounter with Onegin, demonstrating the maturity of passing years in the regal restraint of her crisp lines and controlled extensions.

Onegin, danced with Byronic gloom by Davit Karapetyan, was characterized not by his dancing but by his earthbound, plodding step, stiffly propelling the dark figure through the frothy whirls of chiffon, though his variation at the ball in Act III revealed Karapetyan's velvety pirouettes and soft landings. The final pas de deux between Onegin and Tatiana featured dazzling partnering, with Zahorian suddenly bursting from the ground in grand jetes or dropping precipitously from lifts to be suspended only by the tension of her arms against Karapetyan, an apt representation of the conflict between reaching toward and repelling a lover.

The most interesting relationship in the ballet remained underexplored--that is, the one between Onegin and Lensky. What could cause a man to kill his friend? Might the man so seductive to the reader of romances have been equally attractive to a poet? The mazurka- and polonaise-infused corps dances served as a testament to heterosexual love, with every gentleman paired to a slender lady, and odd pairings and threesomes serving for comic effect. Like the flashes of bright color peeping out from beneath their glittering costumes, the passions running through Onegin went far beneath the surface.

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