Last week, I had the great pleasure of watching the San Francisco Ballet’s version of Onegin. I’ve lived in San Francisco for over four years and I have never been to the ballet (shock! horror!). Due to great timing, I was lucky enough to attend their closing night performance. And what a performance it was!
The ballet Onegin is based on Alexander Pushkin‘s verse novel of the same name. It’s a tale of passion, class structure, death, friendship and, at times, vanity. And since this is Russian Literature that we’re talking about (especially Romantic Russian Literature), you know the tale isn’t going to end up all sunny and rosy. People are going to love deeply, and be in an equal amount of (if not more) pain.
Onegin is actually my favorite Pushkin work, having read it while studying Comparative Literature in grad school. Tatiana (the heroine) is smart, well-read and unafraid of her emotions. The love letter she writes to Onegin is stunning and open in the way that young love typically is. Onegin’s boredom, insensitivity, vanity and obsession make him a fascinating character to behold. Pushkin’s novel been interpreted into an opera (music by Tchaikovsky) and several film versions (the 1999 version starring Ralph Feinnes and Liv Tyler is a favorite of mine), but I was particularly interested in seeing the ballet. It’s such an emotional, heartbreaking story – how would that interpret into dance?
What I loved about Onegin was that it wasn’t full of things that I had seen in other ballets. There were a lot of lifts in this performance and the interactions between characters were very emotional. People literally pull at each other as they dance around each other. There was a lot of sadness and longing in these performances which translated beautifully on stage. There were a lot full-body extensions, where the focus was on the line and the tension between the dancers, as opposed to how many times they spun or leapt across the stage. Yes, there were happy moments when the corps de ballet were all on stage dancing merrily, but the principal dancers always had a bit of edge to their dancing. The happiness would quickly become tinged with jealousy and rejection. Oftentimes principals were dancing solo, or standing up- or down-stage watching the events instead of partaking in them.
I think the real highlight of the show was right after Tatiana writes her infamous letter and has a dream about dancing with Onegin. This is the only time in the ballet where they are truly connected (the image in this post is from this very scene…look how in love they look!), and you get a glimpse of how dynamic and passionate they can be as a couple – but it’s only a glimpse. The next time we see them dance together, Tatiana refuses Onegin and casts him out of her home. It’s a powerful ending to a very emotional ballet.
If you get a chance to, please go see the ballet. It’s like unlike anything you’ve ever seen and is something that will pull at your heartstrings.
Until next week (and my next obsession)!
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