Archives de Tag: Onegin

Onegin : Dirty Feet

Haydée's ShoeOnéguine, Monday, February 10th (Pagliero, Paquette, Grinsztajn).

Among the weird objects I will admit I own and cherish: one of Marcia Haydée’s ravaged pointe shoes.  Standard Freed’s, ballet size 4 ½, lined hastily with something akin to ripped Kleenex. Broken and dirty and small, it still reminds me of how each time I saw her on stage all of her came together, how she grew beyond her limits and used the body beyond that shoe to tell me a story.

Whether by calculation or instinct – but certainly to the delight of the choreographer — the creator of Cranko’s Tatiana always drew the audience into her orbit.  In any role, Haydée could seem almost demonic: fearless – especially when hurling herself heavily at partners – greedily absorbing and consuming emotions and then expulsing them out of every corner of an unconventional body. Everything she did emanated from a radiant core and this dancer never feared looking ugly or going too far if it served the narrative. Even if  you imagined her partners screaming “ice pack” as soon as they hit the wings, you rooted for her from the top of Family Circle at the Met because she somehow possessed a Callas-like shimmer that made all of us up there feel as if we were sitting only three feet away.

Haydée had a controversial dance equivalent of “vibrato.” Haydée could be scary. I am devastated that whoever owns the rights to the few recordings of her performances make most of them utterly inaccessible. (And equally enraged by all the other “Dead Choreographer Trust Babies” who systematically force erasures on UTube. The choreography keeps getting sold to companies, but why should that require washing away the footprints of prior and current generations of performers?)

Please believe me, I do not live in the world of “I was there, you were not.” Indeed, what keeps me going to the ballet is the hope of discovering new performers I can root for and new performances that will keep these old masterpieces alive and memorable.

But alas, on February 10th in Paris, I could only root for Eve Grinsztajn’s Olga. She alone seemed to have read the poem and listened to the opera. Lacking access to old video recordings I rely on my fading memories of Susanne Hanke: lustrous and poised, possessed of beautiful feet in the days before beautiful feet became standard issue, politely fighting back but gently amused by her wilder older sister.  Grinsztajn alone of this cast radiated a thirst for life, a desire to fill the air with her limbs and pearly feet and take at least a few emotional risks. This energy sadly seemed to have been drained from the other leads before the performance even began.  If it has taken me too long to write to you, it is because I came home dulled and enraged and loath to hurt the feelings of these dancers and their fans alike.

Ludmila Pagilero should have read more of what Pushkin says Tatiana read: Richardson with his sturdy damsels in distress, his villains more appealing than his heroes, his warm irony, but also his tacky exuberance.  His characters eat, they are sensual!  Pagliero’s performance broke my heart for all the wrong reasons.  For, when I finally broke down and used my binoculars from the last row atop the Palais Garnier during curtain calls, I could see that her face was filled with spent emotion.  Her face, yes, but her body had never once ripped loose. Instead her instrument had been precisely calibrated, each time doing Cranko’s triple repeats of steps exactly the same careful and studious way.  Thus nothing was ugly, but not ripe or rawly beautiful or expressively expansive either. Everything she did seemed small. We want our heroines to be…big.

I’ve found that Pagliero needs time to grow into a role onstage and fill it out.  She lets go of the classroom by the 4th time, usually. (This was her 2nd)  Unfortunately, I will not get to see her again. She’s out. Injured.  Indeed I delayed writing in anticipation of seeing her on the 25th, expecting an “aha” moment. Was she already fighting against pain on the 10th? Certainly that could entirely explain away an overly cautious attack, a reluctance to get her feet bruised by Cranko’s dangerous partnering landscape.  Thus I do I look forward to the next time she gets a chance to take a chance on Tatiana.

But perhaps Pagliero’s wan Tatiana could be also be ascribed to a major lack of chemistry with Karl Paquette’s Onegin?  He should have read more Byron… While the ballet makes the “hero” less likeable, when you read Pushkin’s original, you get how multi-layered and complicated the guy can be.  Onegin’s only real problem – even if well-read — is that he doesn’t listen to (or realize that he has) a heart when there is still time. Paquette – like Haydée, or any of Byron’s poems – can be a marvelous vector of emotion and most pleasing to spend time with, but only when he is at ease (as in this fall’s “La Dame aux camélias”).  Here he, like Pagliero, seemed too stiff from the get-go, uncomfortable in Onegin’s alien skin. Instead of getting into the story, I sat there wondering during each of this couple’s encounters “what if.”  What would Haydée’s crazy shoes have forced out of Paquette, or an encounter with the toss-around madness of Richard Cragun (or the suave and creepy confidence of Heinz Clauss) have released out of Pagliero?

If Egon Madsen – the Antony Dowell, all pure lines and tender tension, of Stuttgart back then – could have been in the audience this night, he would have picked Florian Magnenet up by the ear and hauled his sloppy Lensky back into the rehearsal room.  I am not sure which of the rehearsal directors imported from Germany actually worked with Magnenet, but I blame them all for allowing such a half-baked effort to be presented on stage to the dancer’s disadvantage.  Let’s get over the fact that he is relatively good-looking and tries to turn that fact “into “acting, Magnenet has lost his bearings. He doesn’t even know how to land from a jump or launch into an arabesque anymore without wobbling all over the place.  After his solo I wanted Onegin to shoot him.  Blessed with beautifully arched feet, apparently, even that fact has become invisible lately.  Why doesn’t he use them, and the rest of himself, to pull himself up and out of approximate performances?  He needs to shake himself up as both artist and dancer before it’s too late.

After an evening so utterly lacking in poetry, I could only think of Edward Lear’s “serve up in a clean dish, and throw the whole out of the window as fast as possible.”  These dancers should dare to get dirt on their shoes. And when they will, the story will come alive again and we will have the excuse we need to whip out the crinkled Kleenex in order to joyfully smear tear-ridden mascara all over our faces.  Ah yes, that’s it, advice from the uxorious Robert Browning: “No, when the fight begins within himself, /A man’s worth something.” [Bishop Blougram’s Apology].

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Onéguine : jusqu’au bout des doigts

P1010032Onéguine est de retour. Le décor légèrement schématique et délicieusement translucide de Jürgen Rose est pendu aux cintres. La chorégraphie fluide, la narration sans ambages de John Cranko, qui font merveille depuis la création du ballet en 1965 ne demandent qu’à nous emporter. Et c’est ce qui arrive, immanquablement. Mais il y avait hier soir un tout petit supplément d’âme qui s’était glissé dans cette mécanique aux rouages éprouvés.

Dans ces moments qui deviennent de plus en plus rares, non seulement à l’Opéra de Paris mais dans le reste du monde chorégraphique, mon œil de balletomane opère invariablement un glissement des jambes des danseurs vers leurs extrémités du haut du corps. Quand la technique est dépassée, l’esprit s’est emparé du corps entier des interprètes et on peut, comme on le fait habituellement dans la vie, s’intéresser à ce qui se passe au dessus de leur ceinture.

Evan McKie, le Canadien du Stuttgart ballet, a la ligne étirée, l’arabesque noble et le jeté facile. Mais ce qui nous a fasciné, c’était son travail des mains. Ces mains longues et ductiles disaient tout du personnage; son éducation, ses affectations, ses préjugés et sa cécité concernant sa vraie nature. Tout était là. A l’acte 1, placées dans son dos, elles s’agitent d’impatience. Puis, un gigotis des doigts semble figurer une conversation avec un interlocuteur qui n’est pas Tatiana; laquelle est pourtant accrochée à son bras. Dans sa première variation « rêveuse », les poignets se cassent avec affectation, figurant de jolis cols de cygne. Au deuxième acte, on a vu notre attention détournée de la scène d’ensemble par l’effeuillage méthodique et étudié d’une paire de gants ou encore par le ballet savamment chorégraphié d’une partie de solitaire. A l’acte 3, Onéguine grisonnant mais toujours diablement séduisant verse moins dans l’afféterie des mains pendant la scène du bal. Aurait-il changé ? Mais, dans l’ultime pas de deux, la force avec laquelle il agrippe l’héroïne devenue princesse Grémine trahit à son insu même l’irréductible nature prédatrice du repenti.

Ce qui était miraculeux, c’est que le ballet s’est achevé sans qu’on puisse véritablement trancher sur Onéguine : la flamme du personnage était-elle sincère ou non ? On se retrouvait, en quelque sorte dans la position de l’héroïne elle-même.

Dans ce rôle, Isabelle Ciaravola parvenait elle aussi à faire oublier ses fascinantes longues jambes et ses pieds à la cambrure de rêve. Même aux prémices de sa carrière, la très jeune Isabelle avait l’opulent aspect d’une superbe femme mûre. Pour jouer la jeune fille gauche des deux premiers actes, elle a donc joué de ses bras. Dans sa variation désappointée de l’acte 2, elle semblait ne pas en avoir tout à fait pris possession (ce qui n’était pas le cas dans le pas de deux au miroir de l’acte 1 où elle se rêvait dansant avec un Onéguine idéal). Ses poignets pendaient un peu et les mains semblaient manquer d’énergie. A l’acte trois, tout était contrôlé et presque stéréotypé dans le pas de deux avec le prince Grémine. Mais dans le duo final avec Onéguine, ils s’étiraient au point de paraître crucifiés ; une belle métaphore visuelle du déchirement intérieur.

Pour parfaire nos retrouvailles idéales avec le chef d’œuvre de Cranko, Lenski et Olga étaient interprétés par deux autres artistes qui savent diriger l’attention vers le haut du corps. Autant Onéguine-McKie était dans la sinuosité, autant Lenski-Heymann était dans l’étirement et la verticalité. Son solo de la scène du duel était absolument poignant. Sa poitrine offerte au ciel disait tout de la nature franche et droite jusqu’à la naïveté du poète. Charline Giezendanner quant à elle avait un cou délicieusement délié sur ses épaules. Son chef avenant semblait toujours onduler comme la corole d’une fleur délicate sur sa tige ; l’expression idéale du charme mais aussi de l’inconséquence.

Quand le haut du corps parle, les vers du poète peuvent se danser.

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Three faces of Onegin: a plot summary

OneginAt the Palais Garnier in Paris from February 3 to March 5, 2014
Choreography by John Cranko (1967)
Music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (but not from his eponymous opera),
Orchestration by Karl-Heinz Stolze

The story is ageless: a young girl’s first love turns out to be a selfish and self-involved man who does not deserve to be loved by anyone at all. Onegin will realize the truth one day, too late for any possible happy end.

Critics at once deemed John Cranko’s decision to craft a danced version of this tale the equivalent of double-sacrilege. Alexander Puskin’s verse novel “Eugene Onegin,” (1831) is still venerated in Russia as the greatest exemplar of native language and style. Moreover, the great Tchaikovsky had adapted the tale into an opera in 1879. If at first the composer’s act of lèse-majesté made both Tolstoy and Turgenev sneer, his opera could now be considered the voice of a nation. Mutter or hum kuda, kuda, vi udalilis [Lensky’s cry of despair for golden days forever lost] upon landing, and the entire staff of the Novosibirsk airport will invite you out to dinner.

Given Pushkin’s gloriously insightful and disabused poem, Tchaikovsky’s deeply emotional lyricism…what more was left to say?

Ah, but John Cranko – South African by birth, English by dance training, and the person who make the Stuttgart Ballet in Germany world-renowned just before succumbing to  a heart attack in an airplane in 1973, age 46 – thought that translating these words and music into yet another medium could provide an incredible opportunity for his troupe of inventive dancer-actors to express themselves.

Denied permission to use any of the opera’s music, Cranko called upon the composer/orchestrator Kurt-Heinz Stolze to unearth all sorts of other lovely Tchaikovsky bits and pieces. In the process, they compiled a rich – and often less somber — score and a fully-rounded, sweeping, vocabulary of illustrative and inventive movement which both Pushkin and Tchaikovsky, I am certain, would have relished.

So, one day in the early 19th century, in a cozy country estate somewhere in Russia during the Romantic Era, the story begins….

ACT ONE: (35 minutes)

Scene 1: in the garden of a country manor

Tatiana, reading yet another Romantic novel in French, does not want to be disturbed. She’s an odd creature, not at all into the normal girly-girly things other women care about, unlike her mom 1) Madame Larina (Monsieur Larin is dead) 2) Olga, Tatiana’s sister, joyous and bubbly and silly — therefore most often cast as a blonde – or 3) the family’s faithful un-named nounou/nursemaid/baba. Tatiana’s birthday party will take place tomorrow, and she seems the least interested of all of them about what she will wear. You, irritated by the overly emphatic and tinkly music of the first scene, might share Tatiana’s dreamy remove.

The village girls, totally excited by the idea of a party, burst onstage. Sewing done, and a bygone romantic herself, Mom rekindles the folk legend that when you look into a mirror, the other face you see in the background IS your soul-mate. Lensky, a landowner and promising poet engaged to Olga, really likes this idea.

Tatiana, looking into that mirror half-heartedly and annoyed by being pulled away from her book, is startled to see the reflection of a tall, dark, and most handsome stranger, Eugene Onegin, just arrived from ultra-sophisticated Saint Petersburg with his friend Lensky. He’s the man of her dreams, who has just stepped out of a book.

From the start, however, Onegin clearly disdains Tatiana’s taste in romantic novels and quickly realizes that country-folk can prove just as dull as those who inhabit the salons of the big city. He cannot be other than polite to this little teenager who has glommed onto him, but he is boredboredbored by everything, by all of them, by life itself, and especially by all these happy locals who seem to have taken dance lessons from Zorba the Greek.

Scene 2: in Tatiana’s bedroom

Unable to sleep, Tatiana – who has learned from novels that men truly in love are too sensitive to take the first step –makes the kind of mistake that changes your life. Instead of asking her nursemaid for earthy advice, she begins to write a passionate letter to the first man she is convinced will cherish and protect the offer of her inexperienced heart and soul.

This is the “letter scene.” In Pushkin, the Tatiana actually drops rich classical Russian and writes her letter in French: the refined language of novels, of yearned-for sophistication. In Tchaikovsky’s opera, a glorious alone-on-stage aria re-translated into Russian semaphores Tatiana’s recognition of a kindred soul in Onegin. In a ballet, how? 10 minutes of watching a girl scratching quill and ink on paper in 3/4 time? 10 minutes of mime to the opera’s text? No. If twee local color had begun to get under your skin for the past twenty minutes, this is the moment when you will go, “Ohhh!” In the 19th century, the feelings of a hopelessly naive Tatiana could only find decent expression in words. Now, in dance, through the magic of mirrors, movement itself will bare her complicated – fearful and ecstatic — feelings.
Think of all those expressions we use: “I’m head over heels,” “he swept me off my feet,” “I could jump for joy.” Those are just phrases, processed by the right brain. That’s why this version of the story matters: the left-side of the brain takes over. No words, no reason, dance connects us between earth and all that heaven allows. Dance makes us rediscover the experience of pure and raw nonverbal emotion.

INTERMISSION (20 minutes)

ACT TWO: (25 minutes)

Scene 1: at Tatiana’s birthday party inside the manor house the next day

Everyone dressed up, visitors from the big city, Tatiana’s big day: what could go wrong? Everything.
Onegin unwittingly makes an ass of himself, the way you can only do when you believe you are so way cool you have no idea that you are just yet another pointless snob. He needlessly hurts the feelings of the local gentry, makes a big show of playing solitaire because that’s more entertaining than dancing with them. Bad enough.

Then Onegin makes two massive mistakes that will change his life. Imagining that he is so important in that great big world out there, he decides to “save” Tatiana from her illusions. He tears up her letter, so indiscreet and so dumb! and places the shards in her hand for burning. (In the ur-text, Onegin believes he acts out of kindness, harder to render in gesture alone, but the result of his words and actions -Tatiana’s pain – remains the same). That was in private. Tatiana, shattered, cannot resist the urge to make a fool of herself in the middle of the dance floor.

One person notices, and is pained by what he sees [but you will only catch this if the dancer in the role creates a rich persona right away]. He is Prince Gremin, a distant cousin of both, who has long admired Tatiana from afar. You get the feeling that Madame Larina had imagined this whole party around just such a match-making scheme.

Then, to drive the point home that he could have any girl in the world and that he is boredboredbored, Onegin — his second massive mistake — starts flirting with Tatiana’s sister. Olga reacts to all the rumpus in her usual girlish no-nonsense way. She cannot understand why her fiancé Lensky takes umbrage to his best friend showering attention upon her: “ But everyone knows you and I will be married for sure so just let me dance in the spotlight tonight! My darling boy, at least you chose a girl other guys actually find hot! Right?”

Prince Gremin finds this all most distasteful. Lensky finds this beyond outrageous…

Scene 2: at dawn, in a park not far from the country house

Lensky dances an aria where he reaches out — in long arabesques and deep bends — in which he seeks to take himself back to that golden past, to the fullness of life, to the one woman, to all the poetic words, he loves so much…and bids farewell to them all. For he, furious the night before, had challenged his best friend to a duel (Pushkin will be killed in a duel, too, in the pointless pursuit of saving his wife’s honor. Thus the novel’s text/the operatic aria,/this dance, each carry forward the same deeply ironic echo).

The two sisters burst into the clearing and hurl themselves upon both Onegin and Lensky, desperate to make them see reason. Listen to how the sisters’ music keeps going around in circles and cannot advance to another key, another melody. This noise reinforces how none of them can find a way out of this horrible dilemma. Only Onegin, starting to catch on to how absurd all of this is, flinches. But Lensky, bound by chivalric ideals, refuses to back down. Too full of pride, for once Onegin’s aim is true…

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INTERMISSION (20 minutes)

ACT THREE: (30 minutes)

Scene 1: a grand ball in a Saint Petersburg palace many years later

Tatiana has married Prince Gremin, and their mutual affection forms a strong bond which all those invited to this soirée fully admire. Watch how Gremin – so uxorious he will not even need a solo to a splendid aria as in the opera — enfolds Tatiana in his arms, placing her delicately into view. Sigh along with her as she yields to this unexpectedly comforting form of mature love. This kind of love, she’d not been prepared for — or been taught to want — by all those Romantic novels back then…
A glittering, contented, and self-assured woman has replaced the awkwardly naïve country-bred teenager in braids. No one is more impressed than a hesitant Onegin, just returned from many years of travel as a kind of self-imposed exile.
In the empty ballroom, Onegin hallucinates that all the women he has seduced but never loved have come back to taunt him. Could Tatiana save him from himself after all?

Scene 2: in Tatiana’s private rooms in the palace

This time it’s Onegin who has written the passionate love letter and Tatiana who doesn’t know how to deal with it. Fidgeting with pages that seem to  burn her palms, she begs her husband (heading off on state business) to stay with her. While touched as usual, tender and tactful,  Gremin chooses duty over passion like a normal husband.
This time Onegin is not a hologram bursting out of a mirror, but a flesh and blood man who literally crawls on his hands and knees in amorous agony.  Older, wiser – he’s grown a mustache at least –seeking absolution and transcendence, Onegin imagines that she must take him back and save him from those long dark nights of the soul. He begs for the kind of love he finally understands to be real and true, even if the passion it arouses risks destroying them both.

So, if you were Tatiana, what would you do?

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Small steps/Onegin in London, bis.

P1000939When 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.

Then 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.

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