(image taken from here)
Last night I went to see the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg in their New York debut of Boris Eifman’s Onegin, based on the 1837 novel in verse by Alexander Pushkin. I’ve seen this company once before and I’ve always been thoroughly entertained. They’re very Russian, very dramatic, very theatrical, very emotional, very angst-filled, doing everything as full-out both movement-wise and acting-wise as you possibly could. There’s never ever a dull moment.
Mr. Eifman’s work is very controversial here amongst the critics — I remember Joan Acocella (of the New Yorker) calling him a “public menace” at one of her book signings! I think he’s very Russian though (as well as very daring), and many in the audience are Russians, of all ages. I felt just as much as if I were in a nightclub in Brighton Beach as at a ballet performance. I also think he would be well-liked among the So You Think You Can Dance crowd. He often combines classical ballet and classical music (here Tchaikovsky) with more contemporary dance (like hip hop or jazz / theater dance) and music (here by contemporary Russian rock musician Alexander Sitkovetsky).
He sets his Onegin not in Imperial Russia but in 1991 in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union and local uprisings against Gorbachev and his liberalism. We see, above the dancers, projected onto a circular backdrop, video clips of people marching, demonstrations, police trying to keep order, and then the images switch to an ensemble of classical ballerinas performing what appears to be Swan Lake. The dance / play begins with the main male characters — Onegin and his friend Lensky (who in Pushkin was a poet, here is a guitarist and musician) in a bar. Lensky seems to be trying to comfort Onegin with his guitar-playing but it doesn’t seem to help much.
Next we’re in the countryside where Lensky has taken Onegin, presumably so Onegin can have a break from the city. (In Puskhin, Onegin is a jaded aristocrat who retires to the country). The setting, by Zinovy Margolin, and lighting, by Gleb Filschtinsky and Eifman, are really cool by the way. Whenever the characters are in the city, the back wall on which are painted a series of black lines is lit in red and those lines become kind of abstract but imprisoning; when they are in the country, the wall is lit in blue and the lines turn into a bridge crossing a river, and the circular backdrop (which the movie images were projected onto) becomes a moon.
Anyway, Lensky goes to the country to see his girlfriend, the playful, flirtatious Olga, and there the bookish Tatyana immediately falls for Onegin, who doesn’t return her affections. Tatyana (danced brilliantly by Maria Abashova) has some really compelling dance sequences, by turns lyrical (showing she’s in love) and more angst-filled with awkward, angular lines and contorted mid-body movements. During part of this sequence, Tatyana’s love letter to Onegin is read (in Russian) by a voice-over. As Olga and Lensky dance a romantic duet, Tatyana walks up and across the bridge holding the letter. It’s really striking, the contrast between the sexually suggestive dancing of the pair and the lone Tatyana with her letter.
Soon, Tatyana has a dream in which she is being seduced by Onegin (pictured at the top of the post). The stage is lit in red and hard rock music is played. It’s very sexual and turns very violent, as soon Onegin turns into several men all clawing at her — a foreboding of the violence and tragedy to come.
I didn’t completely follow the story in the next section — and this is where I think it’s hard to bring Pushkin into the present — but Onegin gets angry at Lensky for some reason — (in Pushkin it’s because Lensky organizes a socialite party which angers Onegin because it represents everything he desires to escape from) — but it wasn’t as clear to me here. Maybe here Onegin’s just a tormented soul in general, maybe his anguish has to do in some way with what’s going on politically and culturally in Russia. Anyway, Onegin gets angry and starts to flirt obnoxiously with Olga (in a very intense duet filled with daring lifts and sexual overtones), leading the same place it does in Pushkin – -to Lensky’s anger resulting in a fight in which Onegin stabs Lensky to death (in the Pushkin, Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel, which Onegin wins).
Then, there’s a really beautiful scene — one of my favorite — where Lensky returns to life, ghost-like, and he and Onegin do a pas de deux. It begins with Lensky hovering over a small table, Onegin underneath. The men see each other through the glass and Onegin pulls himself up as Lensky slowly lowers himself down. They then do a lift sequence, but a very masculine one — with lots of kicks and anguish-filled jumps. One critic interpreted this as a gay scene, but I thought it was more about Onegin expressing his sorrow at what he’d done to his friend, praying for forgiveness.
Eventually Tatyana meets and marries a blind colonel and moves to the city, becoming a member of urban high society the way Pushkin’s Tatyana did. Years later Onegin (who now has greyed hair) spots her at one of the clubs he frequents and becomes enamored of her. There’s an intense pas de deux between them and she tells him she is taken, she’s no longer his to have. It ends with Onegin sitting at a desk crazily writing love letters to her the way she once did him, trying desperately to get the wording right, shredding paper after paper and starting anew. But the letters go nowhere, his time and energy is wasted. Instead, a wind comes along and blows the papers about and he becomes flooded by them.
The main dancers — Abashkova as Tatyana, Oleg Gabushev as Onegin, Dmitry Fisher (who bears a striking resemblance to Slavik Kryklyvyy!) as Lensky, Natalia Povoroznyuk as Olga, and Sergei Volobuev as the Colonel — and are all excellent, both with the intensity of the acting, and the incredible flexibility and gorgeous lines for the women and the athleticism for the men. The two women especially really moved like their characters — Abashkova at times making her movement awkward, at times beautifully lyrical, as if in love, and Povoroznyuk, more playful and sexual as Olga, would often fall into these amazing splits, legs wrapped snakily around her male partner.
One thing: I wish the women would have been on pointe. They all danced in flat ballet slippers. I think pointe work brings out not only the poetry and beauty of ballet but its intensity as well. Eifman could have used it to powerful, dramatic effect here.
The company performs at City Center through Sunday. I think they’re definitely worth seeing if you have the chance, though it might be a bit of a jarring experience for people devoted solely to classical ballet 🙂