by James Foritano
“Onegin,” the three-act ballet choreographed by John Cranko, based on the novel by Alexander Puskin and currently at the Boston Opera House, has a simple plot — but one based on the eternal human verities.
Onegin, a super-sophisticated aristocrat from cosmopolitan St. Petersburg, visits a country house somewhere in the hinterlands outside the city. It’s a friendly duty owed to societal norms despite what little fellow feeling Onegin’s under-developed heart possesses, since his friend and fellow aristocrat, Lensky, is to be married to Olga.
Trouble is, Onegin could be the very image of the romantic hero which Olga’s bookish younger sister Tatiana has been feeding on in her country seclusion. When Onegin enters, all lean thighs, swagger and jet-black coiffure, Tatiana’s book falls to the floor.
It’s as if, despite a still-clinging adolescence, Tatiana’s femininity and soul have been awakened and hitched to an engine of desire pointed straight at Onegin, who is dedicated to being bored and rather likes being adolescent.
Tatiana pursues love, while Onegin, perversely energized by her pursuit, runs headlong into a flirtation with Olga, her sister, and soon to be the bride of his best friend, Lensky.
Lensky, as hot-blooded as Onegin is cold-blooded, takes umbrage at this flirtation with his fiancé, challenges Onegin to a duel and is shot and killed by his ‘best’ friend, whereupon Onegin breaks down and embarks on a round-the-world pilgrimage to either find himself or run away from himself.
Close your eyes to think about it and none of this makes sense. Open your eyes (and ears) on the glitter, the sound and the dancing, in sum, the “theater” of it all, and you shrink to think that, “Yeah, given the opportunity, we are capable of being that stupid!”
At the same time you exult to see that this all-to-human tale is not, this time anyway, about you, but up on a stage. So, you just shake your head at human folly and enjoy the story. Tchaikovsky’s romantic music swells and titters and swoons and explodes. It helps you understand the brain waves that must be swirling through the vainglorious noodle of an ‘Onegin’ as well as the courage, spunk, vulnerability and passion which animate the girl/woman, Tatiana.
Say you’re deaf to music, or just a bit hard of hearing. Onegin’s thick-headedness and tiny heart, both propped up by a pair of crushing thighs, leak visibly through his every pompous step and vainglorious strutting; his would-be lover, Tatiana, danced by Petra Conti, enacts a full panoply of human emotion with superb grace and restraint.
Even when Tatiana is off her feet, being lugged around by a resentful Onegin, she’s hardly a statue, but coursing with expression.
Onegin, superbly danced by Lasha Kozashvili, changes for the better when he comes back from his self-imposed exile; it’s not a metamorphosis, but a complex set of changes, which give him more than a chance with the now married Tatiana.
But is it too late? The final dance between the two so deftly limns the changes of the changeable human heart it turns a spotlight not only on them but on choreographer John Cranko’s legendary ability to narrate the spirit as well as the matter of human interaction.
Ashley Ellis’ ‘Olga,’ paired with Patrick Yocum’s ‘Lensky,’ dances a perfect foil to the star-crossed lovers. Instead of limping into a fateful misalliance of maturity and time and romantic ambitions, they dance a sprightly dream of personal fulfillment tailored to the not overly demanding requirements of society and family. They fit and they know it.
Russian high society, as danced crisply by the Boston Ballet’s larger company, is energetically approving of Olga and Lensky’s perfect match, regretfully acquiescent in the volatile Onegin’s self banishment as well as Tatiana’s making do with a more socially acceptable match.
Cranko allows the stars in “Onegin” to shine in all their complexity and a supporting cast of dozens to support with balletic vigor and narrative pertinence. Not an easy task, especially to manage so easily.
The lighting is responsive to every mood; the costumes wear well, revealing rather than tripping up action that swivels from bare-knuckled to velvety romance. And we, the audience, all eyes and ears, slip insensibly, privately, into a common human past of passion, foible and, sometimes, grace.
(The Boston Ballet’s presentation of John Cranko’s “Onegin” runs through Sunday, March 6, at the Boston Opera House, 539 Washington St., Boston. For tickets, visit bostonballet.org or call (617) 695-6955.)