not in our stars, but in ourselves
Perhaps because it’s so heavily stylized, perhaps because it simply evolved in that direction, ballet often limits itself to fairy tales: The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, The Firebird, Cinderella, you get the idea. There’s nothing wrong with fairy tales; in fact, ballet is the best medium to make the magic of all those old folk tales come alive. There is, however, often something rather pristine and sexless about all those pas de deux between princes and swans, fairies and nutcrackers. Even Odile, the dark seductress of Swan Lake, is more of a beguiler than anything else. Ballet – not unlike other forms of dance – can be potently erotic, deeply passionate, and devastating in its power. Think of the most gloriously sophisticated silent film you’ve ever seen: ballet can weave just that same spell. And the Boston Ballet’s Onegin is perhaps the greatest example I’ve ever seen.
Based on Alexander Pushkin’s novel* and featuring an assortment of lesser-known music by Peter Tchaikovsky, it’s a story about – shall we say – missed connections. On a lovely country estate, Tatiana Larina (Misa Kuranaga at last night’s performance) is a shy little bookworm whose literature of choice tends to the romantic. Her younger sister, Olga (Diana Albrecht), is quite the opposite: a flirty flibbertigibbet with a kindhearted fiancé, Lensky (Alexander Maryianowski). One day, Lensky brings his friend Eugene Onegin (Eris Nezha) to visit. Tatiana is entranced by the tall, brooding stranger; and, when he asks her to accompany him on a walk around the grounds while Olga and Lensky dance and cavort, she’s done for. That night, she writes him an impassioned letter confessing her love (“I am writing this to you. What more? What else can I say? Now, I know, it is in your will to punish me with contempt”) and falls asleep as she’s re-reading it to herself. She dreams that, while she’s looking in her mirror, he appears and confesses his own love for her (and, this being a ballet, he does so in a particularly potent pas de deux). When she wakes up, she’s certain that he’ll feel the same way, and so she sends the letter. Alas. At her name day party, he rejects her and tears up the letter. Bored and annoyed with Tatiana, with the countryside, with Lensky for dragging him along, he decides to dance and flirt with Olga – who isn’t exactly unwilling. Lensky is outraged, and challenges Onegin to a duel. Onegin kills his friend; and, devastated, flees Russia to wander abroad for some years. When he returns to St. Petersburg, he attends a ball thrown by Prince Gremin (Paul Craig), whose radiantly beautiful wife is none other than Tatiana. Onegin realizes what he’s missed out on, writes to Tatiana to beg for her hand, and races to her as soon as her husband has left. He assures her that he’s no longer the callous roué who broke her heart; that he loves her deeply; that he wants to marry her. Tatiana still loves him, but she orders him to leave – and both of them shed torrents of tears as the curtain falls.
The costumes, staging, and sets come from the Dutch National Ballet; the choreography (and adaptation from the novel) from John Cranko; the Tchaikovsky arrangements by Kurt-Heinze Stolze. Those are all wonderful, and I do hope Onegin becomes more of a staple in more ballet companies’ seasons, because the source material is sublime. However, all the solid structure in the world won’t do much if the dancers aren’t up to the task – and, fortunately for us New England ballet fans, the Boston Ballet is teeming with talent. The entire company is superb. At the Boston Opera House, the stage is fairly small, and it would probably be easy for a corps de ballet to appear cramped and incoherent – but the small size of the stage ensured instead that crowd scenes were lively and intimate, and that the group dances were airtight. During one especially impressive maneuver in Act I, the men of the corps race diagonally across the stage as their female partners performed rapid-fire jetés by their side. As talented as the corps and the soloists were, the principals were divine. Kuranaga is a lovely, delicate, precise dancer who conveyed girlish infatuation in the first two acts, and then womanly grace and devotion by the end. This ballet requires quite a bit from its dancers as actors: Kuranaga excelled, and Nezha absolutely soared. He’s a magnetic – I may as well say attractive, at the risk of sounding tautological and/or thirsty – dancer with extraordinary presence. To switch from the real-life version of Onegin in Act I (diffident, bored, haughty) to Tatiana’s dream of Onegin (ardent, powerful, dynamic) and then back to the “real” Onegin at Tatiana’s party (cruel, petty, irritable) – all in the span of about 45 minutes – is a feat, not only of physicality but of dramatic skill. Nezha does it. By Act III, with his hair greyer, his demeanor sadder, he’s undergone a complete transformation. Tatiana has, too, but Kuranaga’s challenge is to grow, blossom, and mature. Nezha needed to convey that Onegin had been broken not merely by the world, but by his own selfishness and cruelty – and, with all the skill and economy of a silent film tragedian, he did it.
Besides the fact that Onegin is a far more adult ballet than some of the others in the Boston Ballet’s repertoire, it’s also unusual because the main focus is a male character. In some ballets, the male dancers are essentially set decorations to help the female dancers. This isn’t meant to denigrate great partnering, but in the most famous ballets – like any of the big three Tchaikovsky ballets mentioned at the start of this review – the male dancers get a few solos and a few variations after their pas de deux, but the women are the stars. There are more of them; they get fancier costumes; their dances, performed en pointe, are often more technically demanding than anything the men have to do; and they do it all while appearing lighter than air. If there’s ever an emotional center to a more traditional ballet (and some of them are just delightful, emotionless confections, and there’s nothing wrong with that), it’s usually a woman. Here, it’s Onegin. And I assume it’s a testament to the power of Pushkin’s original novel, as well as Cranko’s adeptness in adaptation, that he’s not a tragic figure because of a woman. Tatiana is a fully formed, entirely sympathetic character. She’s not a cipher or a mystery that Onegin fails to crack, thus driving him to despair. She doesn’t make him fail: he fails. Whether you’ve read the novel or not, you’ll get it. I don’t think I know of a male author working now who’s so humanist and compassionate in his love stories. It’s ever so slightly mind-boggling that a nineteenth-century Russian nobleman, and then a mid-twentieth century gay South African, could have done better than any of our current literary or cinematic great minds – but that’s a subject for another time.
Unfortunately, there’s not much more time to see Onegin at the Boston Ballet. It’s had a short little run – from February 25th until this coming Sunday, March 6th – and so you’d better hustle if you want to find out what all the fuss is about. If you’re within striking distance of Boston, I really cannot recommend getting here as soon as possible to see it. Granted, it can be somewhat painful to be reminded of all that youthful infatuation and disappointment, or of all the mistakes you’ve made in your adult life – but let yourself luxuriate in it a bit. A little wallowing never hurt anyone.
*You are all going to denounce me as a fraud, and I deserve it: I haven’t yet read Pushkin’s novel, not even Nabokov’s translation thereof. It’s rocketed to the top of my must-read pile, though, so please don’t hurl too much abuse at me.