Title: Eugene Onegin. Eifman Ballet of St. Petersberg.
Author: Eric Taub
Date: May 29, 2009
Despite everything, I'm rather fond of Boris Eifman. Thanks to him, I'm immortalized in Reading Dance, Robert Gottlieb's massive compendium of dance writing, with a quote of this pithy, but apparently compelling, description from a ballet.co review: "kitsch masquerading as profundity." Kitsch masquerading as profundity can be great fun, and I've admired Eifman not because he's awful, but because he's unabashedly, zestfully, copiously so. My big disappointment with Musagéte, the deservedly short-lived "tribute" to Balanchine he made for New York City Ballet was that it wasn't awful enough. Facile, puerile, tasteless, wrong-headed and shallow (Alexandra Ansanelli as a paralyzed-before-your-eyes Tanaquil Le Clercq? Wendy Whalen as Mourka, the Dancing Cat?), but sadly sober, coming from the man who'd created such world-class, worse-than-Béjart kitsch like his Tchaikovsky, with its homoerotic duets between the composer and his mad, gay doppelganger and its gay orgy on the Queen of Spades' green felt card table (to the happy refrains of Capriccio Italien). Eifman lacks not for theatrical vision; it's just that he seldom uses it to look beyond the end of his nose.
Forgetting Eifman's propensity for wordiness, I arrived at City Center for The Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg's Eugene Onegin with little spare time to do more than glance over his eight-page "Choreographer's Note" about the ballet. Alas, it didn't begin as memorably as his note for Tchaikovsky ("The great composer lies dying..."), and consisted mostly of translated excerpts from Pushkin's poem, chopped and arranged to provide "descriptions" of the various scenes of Eifman's episodic production. Eifman's set his story in the recent past, starting with the failed counterrevolution of 1991, making a half-hearted correlation, perhaps, between Tatyana's rise from rural simplicity to urban sophistication and Russia's transition from post-Soviet near-poverty to its current gilded age of petrodollars and oligarchy.
Eifman's set his Onegin to familiar bits of Tchaikovsky (but only the Waltz from his opera Eugene Onegin) interspersed with some truly dreadful metal-guitar rock by Alexander Sitkovetsky. Zinovy Margolin's set looks like a suspension-bridge squashed upstage, while Olga Schaishmelaschvili's and Pyotr Okunev's costumes quite sumptuously evoke everything from a zombie version of Hair to fin-de (last) siecle petrodollar designer trash. Circular things abound upstage: a projection of the moon, a round shining orb in which we see, briefly, TV images of late-century public turmoil, a ballet performance in slow-motion, and blurry scenes that I couldn't quite make out. Often a big, circular ring, spotted with near-blinding lights, would descend from the ceiling, serve as an enigmatic doorway for some of the characters, then ascend again. The first time I saw this I said to myself, "Oh, aliens! Please, let there be aliens.!" But, alas, Eifman failed me.
Near the ballet's beginning, we see Onegin (Oleg Gabushev), Lensky (Dmitry Fisher) and the Colonel (Sergei Volobuev) toasting each other with drunken enthusiasm. (It's what I've always imagined an Eifman brain-storming session to be, actually.) The Colonel slinks off, blinded, it seems, in the early-Nineties chaos, while Onegin and Lensky dance a contorted, twisty-pully duet that suggests that, at some level, they're more than "just friends." At one point one of them (I think Lensky) lies on his back while face-to-face, directly on top of him, the other does a handstand pressing his feet rather erectly towards the ceiling. In the lexicon of Eifman's near-copulatory male-female duets, this is shorthand for "someone's about to get plowed," and while Onegin and Lensky don't actually do it before our eyes, between the friends' smoldering stares and chest-slapping "roughhousing," they might as well have.
We meet Tatyana (Maria Abashova) and Olga (Natalia Povoroznyuk) in the country slapping at mosquitoes among the very pretty country girls of Eifman's corps. We know Tatyana and Olga are the stars because neither hides her hair beneath a scarf, and Olga's the slutty bad girl because her hair's in a sassy ponytail, while Tatyana (who likes to read) is in chaste pigtails. Onegin and Lensky saunter in off the bridge, and while Tatyana's taken with Onegin, Olga's taken by Lensky, and I was reminded how very taken Eifman is with crotches--crotches exposed in any number of novel and acrobatic ways, crotches rubbed against just about any part of another (or one's own) anatomy, crotches as the target of Eifman's signature (and perhaps patented) Flying Face Plant. In this, a man takes a huge flying leap face-forward across the stage, catching himself with his hands so he dives to graceful halt with his face ever so delicately kissing the happily available crotch of his supine lover. Eifman connoisseurs will remember the ardent face-plant bestowed upon the not-quite-Spessitseva heroine of Red Giselle by her Cheka-agent lover; here Lensky tries it out on Olga not long after they meet, and, as a bonus, Onegin plies the second-act Ghost of Lensky with a variant, in which Lensky's standing, and puts Onegin's head in such a tight thigh-lock that you might expect them to be pried apart with crowbars.
At one of the innumerable entr'actes set in grim discos, Tatyana tries to escape the fricative crush by standing on a banquette; alas, she stands with her legs spread a bit wide, which means it's only a matter of time before a man sticks his head between her legs and carries her off lasciviously on his shoulders. Tatyana also ends her letter-writing scene with some memorable crotch-talk. Spread on the floor, she mimes writing while an offstage voice narrates what I assume are the words of her letter. As she writes, she gets increasingly dreamy and twists and turns herself about. Her writhings end with the letter pinned between her legs so that she must delicately extricate it from her crotch before she seals it with a kiss. (She doesn't overtly rub the letter on her crotch; that, of course, would be gross.)
It's hard to imagine how Onegin can decline a letter touched by such labial generosity, but, of course, he does. (For all Abashova's leggy lasciviousness, she's still a virgin compared with Anna Netrebko and her bedpost-humping aria with the Kirov opera a few years ago.)
Compared with Tchaikovsky's opera, Eifman's letter-writing scene is mercifully brief. Even briefer are Lensky's last moments. Onegin flirts with the "open-24-hours" Olga who's wearing a magnificently slutty red dress. Lensky takes exception, there's some manly pushing and shoving going on, then, Onegin knifes him. Poor guy didn't even get to pretend to have a farewell aria. In Eifman's scheme of things, while Lensky's clearly angry that Onegin's flirting with Olga, it's ambiguous of just whom he's really jealous. It seemed odd that Eifman would dispatch Lensky so quickly, but his design became clear in the second act, when Onegin has the afore-mentioned passionate duet with Lensky's bare-chested, hirsute ghost. Obviously, sexy-dead-gay Lensky is more worthy of stage time than alive-sulking-doomed Lensky.
After Lensky's death, Eifman flirts with greatness, but ultimately wimps out: On a bare, dark stage, Onegin mopes about and gnashes his teeth as helicopters and sirens lurk about on the soundtrack. Adding to the "police-drama" feel is a chalk outline of Lensky's body close by the righthand wings. Onegin approaches the outline with fulsome, contortionistic regret, then takes the huge cloak he's conveniently wearing and drapes it over the outline, as if tucking the dead Lensky into bed. Onegin lingers over the outline, and for an instant I thought Eifman was going to treat us to a love duet between Onegin and Lensky's outline, a depiction of gay necrophiliac love that would beat out David Bintley's unforgettable pas de deux between Edward II and the bag holding his lover's severed head. It would've been epic. Instead, Onegin rushes off in a snit. We do also get to see the very pretty, sultry and leggy Tatyana console the very pretty, sultry and leggy Olga, but, again, Eifman teases.
Along with the aforementioned necrophiliac encounter between Lensky and Onegin, Eifman devotes much of his second act to Tatyana's transformation from a sweet naive country girl to a full-blown nouveau-riche bitch. She's been picked up--literally--by the Colonel at a disco (see above for a description of his technique). To an overly long rendition of the Waltz from Tchaikovsky's opera, we see Tatyana primped, coiffed and polished while Eifman's spirited ensemble prances about in expensively vulgar black tie suits and evening dresses. After the transformation, she's buried in makeup and rhinestones, happily filling out a flimsy, trashy one-shouldered cocktail dress. All that's left is for her to tear up Onegin's letter, and for Onegin to die in a knife fight with the Colonel. The ballet ends with a figure dressed like Onegin, but not him, emoting to the heavens as he releases torn-up scraps of paper that fly up from his hands in the breeze from a hidden fan. More paper scraps fall down from above, and the curtain drops. Was this Pushkin? Did I care?
In his program notes, Eifman writes about how he likes to use the "classics" as a starting-off point for examining the Russian soul. Although sometimes the results can be endearingly wacky (for all its silliness, I enjoyed his recent The Seagull), more often he trashes his literary inspiration in service of tales that, despite their theatrical fecundity, depict little more than received wisdom, or, worse, reduce their characters to cutouts, however grandly Eifman wields his scissors. At the end, this Onegin has little to say about the Russian soul other than that the men are drunken, jealous, stupid (and dubiously closeted) louts, while the women are beautiful, sexually rapacious (or repressed sexual rapacious wannabees) and a little scary. Taken on its own merits, Eifman's raging eroticism is kind of fun; there are worse ways to spend one's evening than watching gorgeous, scantily-clad people getting it on to the strains of Tchaikovsky. Book him in one of those crazy nightclubs in Brighton Beach where the tables come pre-stocked with bottles of vodka, and I'm there.