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Flash Review 2, 6-8: Onegin Reduced
Bloodless Graffin Turns a Masterpiece into a Farce

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider

Ballet is a fragile thing. It depends on committed dancers and musicians to make us believe it. I was reminded of just how fragile it is Wednesday at the Metropolitan Opera House, when an American Ballet Theatre cast with three weak leads reduced John Cranko's power-house story ballet "Onegin" to a shallow, perplexing ballet that limped along until it teetered so precariously that I wasn't able to stick around for the third act to see it totally collapse. The corps did its valiant and energetic best, but was undermined in its signature sections by the lackluster, taciturn conducting of Charles Barker.

To say nothing of the three lackluster principals. Neither Guillaume Graffin, in the title role, nor Ethan Stiefel, as his friend and rival Lensky, seemed fully present. Maria Riccetto evinced little understanding of the weight of some of Cranko's most physically and thus emotionally fraught passages. And Irina Dvorovenko, well -- can one really blame her for not projecting love for this caddish Onegin, after being fortunate enough to dance opposite the broodingly charismatic Guissepe Picone Tuesday night?

Like many Russian protagonists -- Cranko's ballet is inspired by Pushkin's epic narrative poem, "Eugene Onegin"-- Onegin, black as he may be, compels with his darkness. He isn't just a cad for the hell of it. Like Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov, there's an existential hole or void in his soul. A reason he got this way. We don't need to know the reason, but knowing that there is one gives his actions weight and makes them not just capricious. Why else would he not fall for the nubile Tatiana, who spontaneously gives her heart to him in a letter shortly after meeting him?

And oh, that letter, and oy, Graffin's reaction to it. The moments where Onegin reads, and then deliberately shreds Tatiana's letter, forcing her to watch by reaching both arms around her neck from behind and tearing it in front of her face, should be so extreme that we instantly understand Onegin's darkness, even if we don't like it. But Graffin reacted to the letter as if it were no more than an annoying bill, and tore it up with the same disinterested air. And Dvorovenko already had less of a distance to fall, since, unlike Picone, Graffin hadn't lifted her to such lofty love fancies anyway. She was not so dreamily affected as on Tuesday night, and I couldn't blame her.

The partnering between Stiefel and Riccetto was also off. At more than one point, as my dancer companion pointed out, leading up to lifting her, instead of spotting her with one hand and waiting 'til the actual lift to hold her with the other, he held her with both in the preparation, telegraphing what was coming and thus depriving it of the element of surprise. Later, turning her in front of him, he held her hand in his so close -- above his head, instead of hers -- that when she turned to face away from him, she didn't have much room in which to move. And Riccetto ruined one of the ballet's most originally poignant moments, when Olga and Tatiana encircle Lensky in front and behind in an intricate pas de trois that demonstrates their trying to restrain him, by seeming to be more tackling a physical challenge than evoking an emotional one.

When I took Russian lit. in college, I remember long nights locking myself in a fluorescent lit, slightly chilly, empty classroom, holing up with Dostoevsky's "Brothers Karamazov." Afraid that I might fall asleep, I had deliberately put myself in uncomfortable surroundings. I needn't have worried. Brothers K -- like other works of Russian lit. such as Pushkin's epic -- was a real page-turner, a stage with non-stop action, totally engaging.

When we go to see one of these great Russian works enacted as a ballet, we don't have the words to so engage us. Only the choreography, brought to life by the dancers, aided by the music. But to do this the dancers need to engage the work and the characters they're playing. And with the exception of Dvorovenko, handicapped by her wuss of a leading man, and Brian Reeder's noble Prince Gremin, the only man on stage Wednesday with a commanding presence, the principal players did not engage with this ballet. From the almost zombie-like conducting of Barker, to the cliched, one-dimensional acting of Rosalie O'Connor as Tatiana and Olga's mother (her character repertoire consisted of clucking), to the hollow man playing the title role, they passive-active destroyed this great ballet.

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