Onegin. Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg.
Author: Pam Diamond
Date: May 21, 2009
Emotional intensity, sinuous technique, and a fierce sensuality characterize the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg's "Onegin," which received its Southern California Premiere at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Wednesday night. With his edgy reimagining of Alexander Pushkin's 19th century Russian literary classic Eugene Onegin, Artistic Director Boris Eifman has created a thrill-a-minute, white-water rafting ride of a ballet that propels the audience into a maelstrom of conflicting passions set in a post-Soviet Russia of the early 1990s.
In consummate Eifman style, the evening-length work wowed from the first, opening to a dramatic ensemble number set against a fiery red backdrop. A round video screen suspended from the ceiling, moonlike, played various images including a black-and-white one of traditionally tutu-ed ballerinas, particularly effective juxtaposed against the grunge-clad dancers rocking out below.
The contrast between the full emotion onstage and the total composure on the screen seemed to delineate Eifman's delighted departure from stylized dance. With "Onegin," no pretty costumes and soothing music beguiled the senses, no elegant limbs stayed neatly within the lines; instead, the ballet drove home its plot points with minimalistic sets and costumes in hues of shadowy grays and the red of blood pounding through veins, in stunningly intricate partnering and attenuated limbs stretched past their limits, and in deeply felt characterizations and rapid-fire scene and music changes.
Dark and gritty, in Eifman's hands Pushkin's tale of an awkward young girl's infatuation, rejection and ultimate revenge is infused with a primal sensibility played out in arched heads and backs, elongated extensions, and interlocking bodies that both caress and punish, control and cajole with raw energy. It's a world where every movement is imbued with foreboding and the characters seem always on the verge of emotional ruin.
Tatyana's first foray into love leads to heartbreak; Onegin, the undeserving object of her affections, ends up killing his best friend, Lensky, in a fight over Tatyana's sister Olga. As Olga holds Lensky in her arms one last time, Tatyana walks slowly up a bridge behind them, holding Olga's birthday cake in her arms. She blows out the candle, as the curtain comes down on Lensky's life, Olga's future, and her own loss of innocence.
As Tatyana, Maria Abashova danced with great depth and sensitivity. She segued from an adolescent's gawkiness, with turned- in feet, hunched shoulders and a certain bookish shyness, to a hopeful naiveté that impels her to leap onto Onegin's back and to try to nestle her head on his shoulder, even after he has disdainfully tossed her impetuous love letter aside.
In an erotic dream sequence reminiscent of a Cirque du Soleil piece she has a telling duet with Oleg Gabyshev's appropriately callous and superbly danced Onegin. With hair hanging down, Giselle-like, Tatyana allows the madness of her love for Onegin to infect her. Her world is literally turned upside down when he holds her up by her feet; later, he swings her around and around by one arm, as careless of her body as he is of her love.
But, bad boys beware of karma! By the ballet's end, Tatyana is married to her blind Colonel (unerringly performed by Sergei Volobuev in black beret and sunglasses) and has evolved into a self-assured sophisticate who fascinates Onegin as he once did her. Slipping in and out of the couples of the corps, the men in black suits and the women now decked out in little black dresses and sleek black bobs, it is Onegin who seems disheveled and out of place. Secure in the somewhat overprotective arms of her husband, the grown-up Tatyana spurns Onegin's advances. The solo scene where he kneels at his desk, feverishly penning love letters to her, is classic payback.
With Eifman's dancers it is almost impossible to separate emotion and technique; every writhing movement, every leap and lift seems a fusion of soul and body. To watch an Eifman ballet is a visceral experience and never more so than with "Onegin." While the main characters' deeply embodied connections and palpable passions swiftly impelled the story forward, the abrupt scene shifts and a dueling musical score that switches back and forth from the classicism of Pyotr Tchaikovsky to the techno-rock of Alexander Sitkovetsky gave the work a choppy quality that at times could be distracting.
The ballet's pulse-pounding action won't be to everyone's taste, but if you have the buds for it, Eifman's "Onegin" is a potent dance cocktail that leaves the audience both shaken and stirred.