When little kids think about dancing, they imagine either prancing around or doing that tippy-toe tiny run which Americans call a “bourrée” and the French call “piétinées” (literally = little stabbing steps you use to crush something.) Tipping around on your toes while not shuddering your entire body ain’t, to put it lightly, easy. Dancers with boobs hate this step. Even without boobs, you feel the largest you’ve ever been doing this most simple little thing. It’s just not natural and the mirror concurs: you’ve never looked more tense and gelatinous in your entire life. It’s the simplest, but the most damnably difficult series of small steps on earth.
When Alina Cojocaru, as Tatiana, began to bourrée around the stage, one hand hung limply about mid-chest, disconnected from the rest of the buttery palpitations of her feet. Limp at first, yet her hand vibrated in and out due to the aftershocks of the troubling feet below. I finally understood the point of this step. It’s not about prancing. It’s the means by which you can semaphore just how hard your own heart is beating. Most often when you get to do it on stage (Swan Lake comes to mind) the bourrée means to tell the audience you hesitate about something, most often love. Cojocaru’s thoughtlessly palpitating little hand kept bumping against her heart.
Having seen her many times, including her Paris Giselle, I still could not tell you about the shape of her arch. The Olympic rating of her feet [probably gorgeous] is not the point. The way she uses her feet is.
Shattered by Onegin’s [Jason Reilly’s] rejection in Act II, Cojocaru then focused me on her neck and eyes. The way she seemed to nestle hesitantly yet trustingly into Bennet Garside/Gremin’s ardent but prudent arms and return his gentle gaze let the audience know that there might be an interesting Act III to come. Too often, I’ve found that I’ve forgotten that the leftover guy who dances around with her from Act II is the same dancer who becomes her husband in Act III. The Gremins need to somehow come alive just at the moment that their Tatianas endure public humiliation…this role tends to be undercooked. Here it came out just right.
In the evening, Thomas Whitehead’s Gremin proved a most White Russian aristocrat. I’ve often been perplexed by how that role should be played. Here you are, covered in medals, a prize coveted by matchmakers, yet the girl of your dreams has somehow managed to fall publicly and stupidly in love with someone else much less worthy. But you can’t play for boorish aristocrat, for then Tatiana must be really crazy not do do an Anna Karenina. This supporting role demands delicate balance. Tenderness or masculine pride seem to offer themselves as the best options. Gartside opted for tender, Whitehead went for pride.
And that worked in each case. They were up against very different women, Cojocaru’s Tatiana couldn’t stand the suspense and looked at the last page of the book she was reading in order to calm down, while Sarah Lamb’s Tatiana let her book happen to her. Her bourrées were cleaner, more literal. She wasn’t a sprite who needed to be tamed, she was already a woman, as Cleopold has pointed out. But a woman, as she tippy-toed around aroused by love her hands dangling poised and softly curled, who had already lost her way and probably would never find the strength to go after what she was looking for.
Purists – White Russians raised on Pushkin, other picky eaters – would have died during this evening performance. OK, so Lamb is as blonde as they come, and so what? As if Tchaikovsky’s opera hadn’t already added to and cut all kinds of stuff from the original poem. Why fault this ballet for not cleaving to the (which one?) original? Ballet was never meant to illustrate but to create new images…
Instead of wearing a ridiculous wig, Lamb concentrated on creating a rich character out of flesh and bone. This one never will get over the romance novels that her dashing Onegin (Valeri Hristov) deems so jejune. That is why her piétinées/bourrés seemed smoother, more widely spaced, more confident. She knew that she had found her romantic hero and would never change her mind. Precisely because she was so touchingly naïve and confident in her Act 1 Dream Scene, remaining somehow so while shocked by Lensky’s murder, Lamb’s final act proved heartbreaking. In a very different way. Cojocaru’s Tatiana let us know that the tragedy from here on after would be Onegin’s and she had already begun to grieve for him. By first dancing calmly and kindly – Englishly? – with her boring husband, then suddenly re-awakened to sensuality – and, oh, the possibilities — with Onegin, Lamb let us know that losing him will become the obsession that will shape of the rest of her bitterly unhappy life. Cojocaru’s Tatiana will find joy in other things, be they babies or sunsets or sitting by the fireplace. Nothing in the rest of Sarah Lamb’s Tatiana’s life will ever satisfy her.
One day, Cojocaru’s T. will tell her husband the whole story (Gartside makes you feel she probably already has). Lamb’s T. will take this secret with her to the grave, for it’s all she has, the only thing in her life that ever had meaning.
The bourrée is a weird step, for you can either move forwards, backwards, sideways, or remain stuck in the same place. Few other steps can express all the possible responses you could take to all of life’s choices. It’s up to you how you dance it.