Geneva Anderson digs into art

Ahhhh love! SF Ballet’s breathtaking premiere of “Onegin” depicts the downside of pouring your heart out in a letter, through Friday, February 3, 2012

Maria Kochetkova as Tatiana and Vitor Luiz as Eugene Onegin in Cranko's Onegin, at San Francisco Ballet through February 3, 2012. Photo: Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet’s 2012 season officially opened this weekend with the premiere of John Cranko’s exquisite Onegin, which is based on Alexander Pushkin’s classic 19th century novel-length poem, Eugene Onegin, and set to a lush Tchaikovsky score.  With Santo Loquasto’s scene and costume design and James Ingalls’ lighting, both echoing the romanticism of Pushkin’s old Russia, and the dancing, which builds steadily throughout the three acts, this production dazzles.  

As stories go, Onegin is timeless—a gripping drama that pulls you in quickly and keeps you referencing your own love life as well.  Eugene Onegin is a sophisticated and aloof young man of privilege from the big city (St. Petersburg) who visits his friend Lensky in the countryside.  Onegin immediately inflames the heart of young, naive and bookish Tatiana whose sister, Olga, is Lensky’s fiancé.  Caught in the spell of first love, Tatiana recklessly pours her heart out in a passionate letter to Onegin and has her maid deliver it (the olden day equivalent of hitting “send”).   Onegin comes in person to Tatiana’s birthday party and offers his answer—“NO”─rejecting the smitten young girl publicly and wounding her to her core.   Then, just to toy with his buddy Lensky and see how he will react, Onegin flirts openly with Olga.  Hotheaded Lensky become enraged and challenges Onegin to a duel whose consequences ruin a number of lives.  In the final scene, which transpires years later in St. Petersburg, Tatiana has settled into a comfortable marriage with the kind-hearted Prince Gremin and has transformed from a naive country girl into an elegant, stately, and very attractive woman.  Now, it’s Onegin’s cold heart that burns for her and it is he who desperately pens the love letter.   And it is she who now rejects him, telling him that while she still loves him, she is a woman now and will stay with her husband because she could never respect him or find true happiness with him.  They had a chance for real love, long ago, but he toyed with her.  Now, sadly, neither will know the joy of passionate romantic love.   Ahhhh love!

Onegin relies heavily on choreography and eschews classical pantomime—it has a series of pas de deux and robust ensemble dances that fill the stage with traditional Russian steps, polonaises, and courtly promenades.  Cranko has also infused it with very modernist elements.  Even something as complex as the passionate content of Tatiana’s letter is handled through dance─as she pens her late-night letter to Onegin, she dreams their deeply emotional pas de deux.  The cast changes frequently throughout the production.  Saturday’s matinee performance was superb with the dashing Armenian-born Davit Karapetyan as Onegin and the Kirov-ballet trained American Vanessa Zahorian as Tatiana.  Both danced their physically-challenging roles with grace and passion and delivered wonderfully complex lifts that required complete coordination between the partners.  Karapetyan and Zahorian are famous off-stage partners as well and made headlines the world over in May 2010 when, after their last performance of Romeo and Juliet, where they each played the title roles, he dropped down on one knee and pulled out a ring that had been hidden in his costume’s poison pouch and proposed to her in front of a packed house.  Their roles in this venerated classic also require a great deal of emotional presence, which both summoned masterfully on Saturday.  Onegin, in particular, struggles throughout the ballet, to find meaning in his life but never does because he is superficial and not able to connect to his feelings. Tatiana experiences her feelings fully and yet still rejects Onegin in the end, leaving the audience to ponder the deep meaning of love, honor, and commitment and to replay their own experiences with unrequited love.  From Zahorian’s first glimpse of Onegin, she conveys the dizzying passion of first love and literally opens to him and appears to be floating in air while he remains cool and unresponsive.

Maria Kochetkova as Tatiana in John Cranko's Onegin, at San Francisco Ballet through February 3, 2012. Photo: Erik Tomasson

Dana Genshaft delivered a charming Olga and a wonderful on stage chemistry with Zahorian’s Tatiana as well as with Domitro’s Lensky.

The music is a Tchaikovsky compilation arranged by Kurt Heinz Stolze in 1965 and is completely different from the music in Tchaikovsky’s beloved opera of the same name.  Instead, it is a less powerful orchestration of some of his little-known piano works such as The Seasons (1875-76), along with themes from the 1885 opera Cherevichki (The Slippers), and the latter part of the symphonic fantasia Francesca da Rimini (1876).  Martin West, SF Ballet’s Music Director and Principal Conductor and guest conductor David LaMarche alternate performances.  Saturday’s matinee was handled quite proficiently by LaMarch.     

Santo Loquasto’s scene and costume designs, traditional in all regards, echo the romanticism of Pushkin’s old Russia.  From Madame Larina’s countryside garden to Tatiana’s bedroom and her birthday party to Prince Gremin’s Palace, the sumptuous sets beckon the intensifying tragic drama. 

Run Time: 2 hours, 16 minutes with two intermissions

Details: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.  Tickets: $36- $285 For further information: (415) 865-2000 or

Remaining performances:  

Sunday, January 29, 2012 2 p.m.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012 8 p.m.

Wednesday February 1, 2012 7:30 p.m.

Thursday February 2, 2012, 8 p.m.

Friday, February 3, 2012, 8 p.m.

January 29, 2012 Posted by | Dance | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment