I close. I dread to rend this page…
for shame and fear my wits are sliding…
and your honor is my guage,
and in it boldly I’m confiding….
– Tatiana’s letter to Onegin, A. Pushkin
The last time I saw the ballet ‘Onegin’ was when I was thirteen, and saw it danced at the Fox Theater in St. Louis by the Stuttgart Ballet, the company on which the ballet itself was premiered in 1965. The memory of the Act 1 Scene 2 pas de deux, in which the mysterious and handsome Onegin appears in her bedroom mirror has stayed with me as one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. Here is how the recent American Ballet Theatre production based on the poem by Alexander Pushkin compared to my teenage dream.
- Onegin made my old list of the top 5 best things I’ve ever seen. Maybe it’s due for an update
- I lived in Pushkin’s old house in St. Petersburg. Good times.
- That Valentine’s Day when I wanted to do the Onegin mirror scene pas de deux with penmanship extraordinaire Anthony Weiner.
The curtain opens on a grandiose picture of mist-filled tawny woods set against Madame Larina’s garden featuring carved-iron pillars. The first recognizable ballet steps were a corps of female dancers executing demanding arabesque turns in group formations, the John Cranko choreography demanding as ever.
Skylar Brandt dancing the role of Olga, was youthfully flirty and enjoyable in both technical feats and in her characterization. Olga is a dingbat but Brandt, with her exuberant charm, made her likeable. Some awkward partnering where the arms seemed to get in the way during, hands searching with uncertainty in promenade occurred in the pas de deux with Lensky. This was particularly noticeable against the sweeping elegance of the Tchaikosvky score and the famous June Barcarolle piece. I think height, and perhaps arm length (is it me, or are Brandt’s arms quite long for her tiny height?) seemed to play a part.
Jeffrey Cirio was able to showcase his dynamic talents in the role of Lensky. His solo work in Act 2 before the duel, and his untimely demise, against a scrim of falling leaves was especially profoundly beautiful. A favorite memorable moment was the challenging en dehors pirouette sequence in which Cirio did first about six or seven, then finished with another six or seven, held the retire on releve and melted into an arabesque. His masterful use of control and expansive elegant port de bras set up a wonderful contrast for the rash emotional moments of the duel.
Kate Lydon, director of ABT 2, was enjoyable as the busybody Madame Larina.
Thomas Forster was a perfect princely partner as Prince Gremin. He is also the tallest guy on stage. At one point in the birthday scene, he was standing next to a petit blonde in the corps and his legs went up to her head.
The full corps showcased some stunning dancing even if it often struggled in ensemble moments. The line of men, holding each other by the shoulder, were different in the timing popping up from grand plie. The partnered couples in the birthday scene were especially not together during the beautiful partnered pique turn into allonge arabesque, in either height of the leg or timing. However, the partnered jete line on both right and left side was perfectly executed down the line from each couple, flawless exciting and powerfully dazzling.
Lighting design from James F. Ingalls contributed beautifully to the intensity and moodiness of the production. Sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto added grandeur and sparkle. The red backdrop of act 2 with three glittering golden chandeliers, fading into emerald green as Onegin danced was both visually breathtaking and emotionally impactful. The costumes suited each character, and the red gown worn by Tatianna in act 3 is one of the most stunning pieces of costumery I have seen. More on that later.
- I normally prefer green costumes. the 4 best green costumes
Hee Seo as Tatianna was fragile and dreamlike, her line exquisite in each moment, even as she is tossed around in pas de deux. This is tough role not only for the technical feats, but because of the journey of the character from inexperienced, overly romantic young girl to powerful queenly presence in later acts. Seo’s incredible extension was always on display, even in moemnts such as the trio between Lenksy, Olga, and Tatianna in which the two girls are partnered in jete where Brandt’s legs were only slightly above 45 degrees in front and back and Seo hit a full split each time. Whether her extension is the result of a conscious choice representing the emotional turmoil of the character or simply an inability to control it is uncertain, but the reckless abandon works in this ballet.
David Hallberg is having a triumphant return to ABT following two years off from injury and it is hard to imagine a more perfect Onegin than him. No one better captures the feeling of cold aristocracy, aloof yet still entrancing. He seemed to reserve use of exertion, and displays of muscle, or power for the incredible speed and strength used to toss, lift, and whirl Seo in pas de deux, appropriate to both character and story. Perhaps it is the flawless articulation in his legs and feet, the always perfect alignment from head to toe that makes it seem as if he hardly need try to win over every heart. A favorite moment was the arabesque turn sequence in his Act 1 solo, with controlled landing and graceful, almost undetectable preparation. This glacial reserve made the passionate wildness in both the duel and the final pas de deux all the more touching.
- So, I guess we don’t need a volunteer tribute to take Hallberg’s feet?
There is nothing in this ballet which speaks to our current political climate, to many issues facing the world at large. In this sense, it is easy to think of this ballet as a mere love story, a tragic poem, an enjoyable fantasy as if there is nothing real and relatable for the audience. However, it is a wonderful gift to see fellow human beings doing what they do well, particularly in the case of seeing Hallberg return to the stage. There is a palpable feeling when the audience is rooting for someone, even a jerky character like Onegin. The special give and take of audience appreciation made the curtain call, especially with Hallberg’s bow, even more enjoyable. For this small bit of reality within the fantasy, and for the flawless dancing and overwhelming visuals, this performance matches that of my first love in the Stuttgart version.
It’s a bit redundant to have too many words to describe a ballet based on a poem, so I’ll leave my final nod of appreciation in picture form- to the spectacular red costume worn by Tatianna in act 3 under those glittering chandeliers.
Watercolor on sheer gloss cardstock. Original/ prints available by email order in the shop