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Flash Review, 6-6: Onegin Arrives
In Sensational Debut, Picone Proves that it's the Dancing

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider

John Cranko called his 1965 masterpiece of a heavy-weight story ballet "Onegin," but it often looks like it should have been called "Tatiana," after the woman spurned by the bored aristocrat who grows up to spurn him. It's Tatiana who makes the greatest journey during the course of the three-act ballet, from dreamy, gullible, fragile country girl easily charmed by the sophisticated city slicker, to strong princess finally able to turn him down -- and turn the tables on him as well, tearing up his love letter as he had earlier torn up hers. When the ballet made its American Ballet Theatre premiere Friday at the Met, the opening night "Onegin" bolstered the idea that dance-wise, this ballet belongs to Tatiana: Robert Hill, while he may look the part when he's just walking around, has little left in his dancing arsenal. So if you were seeing this ballet for the first time with Hill interpreting the title character, it would be easy to believe Onegin was not much of a dancing part. Last night's cast supported the opposite conclusion. Making a sensational debut as Onegin, Giuseppe Picone revealed that like the rest of the ballet, this is not just a dramatic part with some movement. What sets Cranko apart from so many story ballet choreographers working today (recent examples at ABT: Lar Lubovitch and David Parsons) is he knows how to create ballet theater. Every single movement expresses a character or dramatic idea or emotion in dance, and never is he satisfied to offer just flailing pantomime.

In his first solo for Tatiana, played last night by Irina Dvorovenko, Picone gives a dazzling dance that might be called, "I'm so pretty, but I don't care." As Tatiana watches dewy eyed, marveling -- it's as if the hero of one of her romance novels has jumped off the page and given her a love life -- he performs a series of perfectly poised, luxuriant (lazy in mood, as they should be) tours and leaps. Choreographer and dancer essentially capture imperial ennui in the dance. Unlike a swain who might actually care about her reaction to his swirling, he seems to be oblivious to her -- performing more for a mirror stationed somewhere out in the audience.

In his first bedroom scene with Tatiana -- where Picone emerges out of a full-length mirror -- it was easier to get that this wasn't really Onegin we were seeing, but Tatiana's fantasy enactment of her love letter to him. Cold before, he was suddenly steaming, hurtling her about with passion if not love. Later, even the way he tore up her letter was deliberate, drawn out -- a moment not thrown away, as it was by Hill. This is important because a big part of Cranko's achievement is his employing in balletic terms a common literary styling of Russian literature: important motifs and moments are later echoed, at least once. Earlier gestures foreshadow later ones, which in turn have more oomph if we get the reference, because we can see the distance the characters and the narrative have come. In this case, Onegin's tearing up of Tatiana's letter will later be repeated, when she tears up his. For us to get the revenge aspect of her gesture, he needs to have executed his with flourish and deliberation -- even better, with deliberate cruelty.

It's a mirror image, really, and like all great Russian story-tellers, Alexander Pushkin, who wrote the epic narrative poem on which "Onegin" is based, uses inanimate objects like mirrors to great literary effect.

In "Onegin," the mirrors are often portals, to the future and the past. Both flirty Olga (last night, a sparkling and tartish Xiomara Reyes) and bookish sister Tatiana first see the men of their dreams (Lensky and Onegin) in their dressing table mirror, as he appears over their shoulders. In the final scene, where the suddenly smitten Onegin tries to re-kindle Tatiana's passion for him, the table mirror's there again -- this time representing a constant reminder of the Onegin of old, the one who spurned her and killed Lensky in a duel. It's a portal to the past, really, which throughout this final, intricate and intimate pas de deux is at war with the passionate and loving Onegin wooing her and working her emotions now. The tug of the cold past proves stronger than the tug of his warm hands. It's a glance into the mirror that finally reminds her of that past Onegin, who violently tore up her innocent self's love letter to him, and that determines her to pick up his letter from the table, and just as slowly, just as deliberately, just as much knife-to-his-heart tear it up. Only where she ultimately made a dignified retreat when he tore up hers, he only grovels, 'til she twice firmly banishes him, not looking at him and with arm and finger pointing rigidly towards the exit, out of her bedroom. Only when he's gone, after one last lunge towards the door, does she return to the middle of the room and desperately swivel her head back and forth, from the door where the Onegin who now loves her (or something) has just departed for good, to the mirror where lives the Onegin who spurned her.

In Julie Kent's hands at Friday's opening, this trigger was totally missed, so that we had no idea what exactly prompts her to finally decide in favor of banishing Onegin. But Dvorovenko totally got this, which made the moment resonate more not only for us, but, I think, for her, sending her torso reverberating into a spine-tingling arch as the curtain fell.

Unfortunately, in this scene anyway Dvorovenko didn't really get going emotionally until the final moments. The choreography in this pas de deux is very specific -- wonderfully varied combinations not generic, but specifically designed for this theme of a woman torn. I got the sense that Dvorovenko is now at the "making sure I get the choreography right" point, i.e. involved with the physical intricacies, and hasn't yet gotten to the point where the choreography can be second nature, leaving the natural emotions free to come through. She was more believable in her gullible stage -- where, after all, Tatiana's motivations are not so tangled, so that the basic pointe tools (rising on both and gliding backwards from Onegin, arms outstretched, to convey that he has her) conveyed the simple emotions.

Not that subtlety escaped her; more than with Kent, during her Act III pas de deux with husband Prince Gremin (Brian Reeder), where Kent was still the fragile doll, Dvorovenko was deeply, softly, complexly and by her own choice in love with the prince. And how could she not be? Many princesses would be glad to find a partner like Reeder, who doesn't just hold them sturdily, but -- something I've never seen anyway -- is not looking nervously at her waist while he turns her, but lovingly and adoringly at her face. In Reeder's hands, this role was not the typical "this is the consolation guy" role, but a partner and prince worthy of being the first choice. One could see why Tatiana loved him, and it wasn't because she couldn't get Onegin.

If there was a weak link in last night's cast of "Onegin," it was Angel Corella's Lensky. Unlike the character as portrayed by Vladimir Malakhov, who I saw Friday, Corella evidenced little acting skill. There was no build-up to his challenge to Onegin, who has usurped his girl; suddenly he grabs his gloves and matters escalate. And in his pre-death solo, right before the duel, the poignancy projected by Malakhov was painfully absent in Corella. Malakhov in this solo was doing everything as if for the last time -- bidding farewell to the world and SAVORING each moment physically and emotionally. Corella turned everything allegro -- just another night at the circus, folks! -- and thus failed to give us any idea of what this solo is really all about.

Unfortunately, Picone will not perform Onegin again in this NY season. Inexplicably, Hill is scheduled to do it three times. It's the one sad development in ABT's otherwise commendable obtaining of this great heavy-weight ballet, in that it makes me wonder if ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie really realizes what a chance for dancing tour-de-force the role of Onegin is. (Before I forget, last night's corps, unlike Friday's, which was performing it for the first time, gave a tour-de-force, totally getting into the Russian spirit peasant dance, with gusto -- even challenging the beat by finishing slightly behind it.) And the potential this work offers for true ballet theater, where the theater emerges from the ballet. the dance truly telling the story.

Having said that though, "Onegin" is a fine and needed addition to the ABT repertoire, and not just for its intrinsic value. Just as the addition of Balanchine ballets into a company's repertoire elevate its technical ability universally, this solid story ballet, where dancer-actors are given not just skeletal mime but real dancing with which to tell the story, should elevate the ABT dancers' acting level and their ability to tell a story through dancing throughout the repertoire.

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