Striking moments, and a few strange ones, in Eifman Ballet's 'Onegin'
Author: Sid Smith
Date: May 16, 2009
Publisher: Chicago Tribune
Boris Eifman's fearless, fascinating approach to ballet is wildly idiosyncratic, sometimes embarrassingly juvenile, but often entertaining and rarely uninteresting.
He stands alone, you often think, in crafting new, full-length ballets that hunt for modern relevance. In "Eugene Onegin," now on view at the Auditorium Theatre, he and his Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg take Alexander Pushkin's grand novel and reset it in a much more recent Russia.
There are unintentional ironies. While the idea may be to update an old tale, Eifman's predilection for histrionics and over-the-top imagery sometimes make the Gothic excesses of "Giselle" seem minimalist by comparison. In one scene, in which the story's hero bemoans murdering his friend in a fight (a duel in the original), Eifman not only serves up the flour-coated specter of the dead friend, Lensky, looking a bit like Marley's ghost, but a horde of other ghouls racing about the stage like horror movie zombies.
Eifman's decidedly original, sometimes peculiar technical approach results in odd images too -- mixtures of ballet, modern dance and something else. Some ensemble moments recall a weaker strain of Broadway choral dancing.
But you never wait long for Eifman to come up with something startling. A kind of weight bench throughout provides for some striking moments, and in the spectral scene, Onegin is held aloft, prone, by the dancers, until Lensky stands briefly on top of him before collapsing backward -- quite the acrobatic tour de force.
Some detractors complain that updating "Onegin" doesn't make sense, but that actually works fine in my opinion. Eifman and his designers provide a sleek physical production, with a floating video circle alternately serving as moon and an unsettling Rorschach blotch, and a sculptural bridge span that provides a haunting walkway and backdrop. Pushkin's iconic characters play out their sudsy activities in more recognizable locales, such as discos, and the result universalizes Pushkin more than it trivializes him.
It also allows Tatiana, the shy, inexperienced country girl Onegin treats so shabbily, to appear in Spartan, Balanchine-like skirts that telegraph her sexual evolution. Maria Abashova, a leggy, striking dancer who played the role Thursday, made the most of Eifman's sensual lunges and fevered emotionalism. She was well met by Oleg Gabyshev, as Onegin, boyishly handsome and slender, but enormously powerful, breathlessly swift and as intense as a barn fire in enacting Eifman's overwrought passions.