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Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg

Eifman displays mastery of dance and theater with inspired 'Onegin'
Author: Hedy Weiss
Date: May 16, 2009
Publisher: Chicago SunTimes

Perhaps the best way to think about choreographer Boris Eifman is to dub him "the Jerome Robbins of Russian ballet," for he is a master of theater as much as a maker of dances -- a man with a seamless feel for the way gesture, music and stage design can coalesce in the art of storytelling and character development. And now -- after watching the Thursday night Chicago debut of his "Onegin" at the Auditorium Theatre, and thinking back on the five previous visits by his company, the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg -- that essential resemblance has only been magnified.

Like Robbins, Eifman's principal vocabulary is drawn from the world of ballet, though he always has had a taste for the acrobatically modern, and in recent years he also has made use of popular dance (particularly breakdancing moves). Again, like Robbins (and unlike most contemporary ballet choreographers), Eifman is unafraid of depending on a narrative as opposed to being strictly abstract.

With "Onegin," he has found inspiration in the classic 19th century verse novel by Pushkin, but he has boldly and dramatically reimagined its Imperial-era story so that now it is set against the upheaval of the 1991 coup in Russia, when a group of hard-line Communists attempted to regain power from the reform-minded president Mikhail Gorbachev. All of this is suggested in the ballet's opening scene, in which a video screen in the shape of a camera eye or changing "moon" features footage (designed by Vladimir Bystrov) of tanks, crowds in the street and even the agitated world of swans in a corps de ballet.

As the youthful masses congregate in the shadow of a great bridge (Eifman uses the corps in the most fascinating ways), both change and danger clearly are in the air. And it is against this backdrop that a far more personal and tragic story of love, loss, betrayal and death are played out in a gorgeous series of solos, duets and trios, with the ensemble arriving for several internal nightmare sequences, a funeral and social dancing sequences of fantastic originality.

The story's tortured anti-hero, Onegin (danced by Oleg Gabyshev), is an emotionally chilled but worldly man who hangs out with his far less neurotic but sensitive, guitar-playing friend, Lensky (Dmitry Fisher). His fleeting encounter with Tatiana (Maria Abashova), a bookish, wholly innocent girl, leaves her in the state of overwhelming excitement and passion so characteristic of first love, and long after he brushes her off she carries the scars. Meanwhile, she watches as her high-spirited sister, Olga (Natalia Povoroznyuk), thrives on a passionate relationship with her fiance, Lensky.

Later, Onegin tempts Olga, and this competitive bid for the same woman ends with Onegin killing Lensky. Fast forward and Olga agrees to marry a cold, commanding military man (Sergei Volobuev). Transformed into a glamorous diva, she is unrecognizable when spotted again by Onegin. But now, despite his pleas, she rejects him.

Eifman's tall, reed-thin dancers -- all of whom possess an extraordinary gymnastic-like flexibility and strength -- are beyond remarkable here, with an added freedom thanks to the absence of pointe shoes. In a transformation every bit as challenging as the white and black swans of "Swan Lake," the wonderfully open-faced Abashova manages to be both gawky and sensual in choreography that few other dancers could carry off.

Zinovy Margolin's vivid backdrops and the astonishing lighting by Gleb Filschtinsky and Eifman are in a class unto themselves. A bit more connective tissue between scenes might enhance "Onegin," as would a far better recording of the score --a mix of Tchaikovsky and the rock music-based Alexander Sitkovetsky. But this is a work of daring and imagination unlike any other evening-length dance works you will see these days.