Title: Eugene Onegin and Zombies!
Author: Kathleen O’Connell
Date: May 29, 2009
If you asked the minds behind WrestleMania to dramatize Alexander Pushkin, you might get something along the lines of the amped up, sensationalized tableaux of Boris Eifman’s “Onegin,” which received its New York premiere at City Center on Friday. Eifman, like professional wrestling, is not to everyone’s taste, but WrestleMania packs them in and so does Eifman. He knows what his audience has come for—febrile emotionality and beautiful young bodies pushed to their extremes—and delivers it with a will and theatrical flair. What “Onegin” doesn’t deliver is genuine drama made vivid through eloquent choreography. It’s as fake as a steel cage match and just about as profound.
Eifman updated Eugene Onegin to late 20th century Russia, and the ballet opened with the failed 1991 coup immediately preceding the collapse of the Soviet Union. The updating did no harm, but it didn’t really add anything either aside from the opportunity to put the corps in a disco instead of a ballroom. “Onegin” retained Pushkin’s central characters and the contours of his plot, but was nonetheless incoherent as a drama. Eifman provided the “whats”—Onegin spurns Tatyana; Onegin kills Lensky; Tatyana rejects Onegin—but not the “whys;” we got histrionics and overwrought dream sequences masquerading as psychological acuity. Clumsy storytelling was partly to blame: “Onegin” rocketed from scene to scene with little transition and the action quickly degenerated into a pageant of one damned thing after another. Eifman’s choreography was the rate-limiting factor, however. His palette was too crude to depict anything more nuanced than paroxysms of torment; it was inadequate for the subtleties of human feeling and interaction.
When in distress—whether from boredom, terror, or remorse—Onegin (Oleg Gabushev) bared his chest and writhed around like William Hurt in “Altered States.” Girlish, love struck Tatyana (Maria Abashova) skipped around the stage with the turned-in gawkiness and splayed limbs of a filly. When she wrote her famous letter to Onegin, she rolled around on the floor like a cat in heat. Every encounter between a man and a woman required pretzeled grapplings and death-wish lifts that evoked pornography, yet weren’t particularly erotic. When Lensky (Dmitry Fischer) needed to demonstrate poetic ardor, he partnered his guitar.
“Onegin’s” stage pictures were often arresting in design, but preposterous in content. Lensky’s ghost arrived from hair-metal hell—where one is apparently doomed to wear fringe and acid washed denim for eternity—to torment Onegin’s dreams with a pack of zombies in tow. Yes, zombies; they even made zombie noises. Eventually, they hoisted Onegin’s prone body above their heads at which point Lensky’s ghost proceeded to stand on top of him. It was an impressive sight, but still—zombies? The less said about Tatyana’s dream, the better, but it involved smoke, werewolf howls, and either seduction or date rape—I couldn’t tell which. Still, there were some good things. Onegin lay back across the lower tier of a bench, Lensky’s ghost lay face down on the tier above him and they mirrored each other’s movements. It was the tenderest moment of the evening, expressive of genuine loss and longing. For once Eifman’s choreography said everything it needed to and not one thing more.
The choreography on display in “Onegin” was a dated assemblage of ballet’s flashier effects, generic anguished modern, and Bob Fosse filtered through an MTV video. The steps appeared to have been randomly tossed together without any intention of shaping a phrase: the dancers were simply ratcheted from extreme position to another. The steps bore absolutely no relation to the music, either, which isn’t surprising since the music itself bore absolutely no relation to anything; it was a clunky mish-mash of Tchaikovsky extracts and late 80s Soviet rock that served exactly the same function as the music for a figure skating routine. It was impossible to form any reasonable assessment of Eifman’s dancers: they were given a great many hard things to do, but nothing to dance. Worse than that, what they were asked to do shows off their uniformly lean and long-limbed bodies, but didn’t make them look good and rarely made them look individual. The principals were winning in their commitment nonetheless and the corps dug into its malign club routines with a vengeance.
The production’s striking unit set—a modern cable bridge angled in silhouette across the back of the stage—was augmented by video projections (including slo-mo clips of “Swan Lake”) and effective, moody lighting. A large Catherine wheel rimmed with spotlights dropped down from the flies for Onegin’s dream sequences. It bore an unfortunate resemblance to a UFO.
The program notes included a “Sketch of the Artist” in which we learned that “Eifman creates classic examples of psychoanalysis on stage.” We got plenty of psycho, but not much analysis.