Boston Ballet on point with an emotional Onegin

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Clever choreography and intelligent dancing told the tale of a fiery romance last Thursday at the Boston Opera House. Boston’s lead dancers left the audience breathless when the curtain closed on opening night of Boston Ballet’s latest production, John Cranko’s Onegin. Cranko’s 1965 creation transformed Alexander Pushkin’s 19th-century narrative poem, Eugene Onegin, into a dramatic ballet set to the music of Tchaikovsky.

The opening scene of the ballet is a lush Russian countryside. Bubbly Olga (Principal Ashley Ellis) gossips with her mother and nurse about men and frilly dresses, while her sister Tatiana’s (Principal Petra Conti) undivided attention is devoted to books. But when the worldly gentleman Onegin (Principal Lasha Khozashvili) visits their home, Tatiana is entranced by the mysterious and handsome man, whom she thinks must certainly be the hero from her novels. While Tatiana pines over Onegin, Olga and the romantic young Lensky (Soloist Patrick Yocum) quickly fall into a whimsical romance.

That night, Tatiana pens a heartfelt letter to Onegin. She dozes off and dreams that he appears through her mirror, bold and romantic: literally, the man of her dreams. He dotes and she revels in their passionate pas de deux (dance of two). But the harsh reality is that Tatiana is rejected. At a party, Onegin attempts to return the letter to her. When she bashfully refuses to take it back, he tears it up in her face.

More trouble ensues when Onegin, bored of the party, steals Olga away from Lensky to dance flirtatiously. The infuriated Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel, and when Onegin cannot dissuade Lensky, he accepts the challenge. Though Olga and Tatiana attempt to stop Lensky one last time, he follows through with the duel, and Onegin shoots him dead. When he realizes what he has done, Onegin breaks down.

Petra Conti and Lasha Khozashvili in John Cranko's Onegin. (Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy of Boston Ballet)

Petra Conti and Lasha Khozashvili in John Cranko’s Onegin. (Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy of Boston Ballet)

Many years later, Onegin visits St. Petersburg and discovers Tatiana transformed into a mature and beautiful woman, but happily married. He instantly regrets rejecting her in their youth, and begs her to take him back. It is the moment she has dreamt of for years, but put to the test, Tatiana remains strong, and ultimately turns him down.

The dances in Onegin drive both the story and the character development. Cranko seamlessly turned text into dance, telling a very clear story. But the choreographer was most famous, even beyond his lifetime, for creating beautiful pas de deux. This skill was put to great use in Onegin, where the dynamics between the couples hold so much weight.

For Olga and Lensky, it is sheer blissful romance. Ellis and Yocum were a delightful couple, full of energy and swooning sighs. Ellis seemed to sparkle, and Yocum was the perfect image of a 19th-century romantic hero. Their partnering showed an impeccable and dazzling chemistry.

The task for Conti and Khozashvili as Tatiana and Onegin was much different, since the complicated relationship changed from scene to scene. Their final pas de deux was the most gripping of all their duos. Bursting with sorrow and desperate longing, Khozashvili threw himself onto Conti and then onto the ground, begging her to take him back. Conti’s response was heart-wrenching, as she was clearly dying to give in and barely able to refuse. The couple’s performance of the pas de deux was electrifying; each move was a vital and revealing expression of affection.

Conti’s performance of Tatiana was utterly engaging. She captured Tatiana’s distant yearning for Onegin perfectly: desperately longing, but too shy and immature to know how exactly to grasp his attention. Portraying Tatiana’s youth, Conti’s movements were timid and short, like a young girl still learning to properly extend her limbs and poise herself. She won over the audience by exposing Tatiana’s vulnerability.

But Conti showed that Tatiana is not weak. Throughout the ballet, her strength of will became more evident. Even after heartbreak, she was able to stand up to Onegin when he shot Lensky. Standing upright with her chin jutted out at him, she seemed to say, “Look at what you’ve done.” Only then did Onegin collapse, realizing the gravity of his actions.

In the final act, Conti appeared on the scene, fully transformed. By then, Tatiana had learned how to carry herself with refined poise. She had reached her full potential, and Conti used the opportunity to demonstrate her elegant dancing with weightless leaps, strong turns, and elegant poses.

Opposite Conti, Khozashvili executed his steps with strength, energy, and grace. He reached great heights in his tour jetés, and landed with stunning arabesques. His performance in the final pas de deux was especially compelling, largely due to his ability to focus on technical skills when it would be easy to get carried away with emotion.

But the role requires more than good dancing. It is one thing to dance a fully passionate romantic pas de deux, and yet another to dance a character who is described as “passion-less.” Disillusioned with the experiences of the world, the Onegin we meet has seen it all. He is proper, but bored. He’s not too impressed with Tatiana’s books. He’ll take her on a stroll and perform a polite duet, but it is no more than that. Tatiana is wide-eyed when he lifts her up, but instead of gazing into her eyes like Lensky would do with Olga, Onegin simply looked the other way and set her back down.

Emotionally complex characters are one of Khozashvili’s strengths. He conveys important emotions with subtle physicality. Without such attention to detail, the character of Onegin could easily become flat. But Khozashvili effectively communicated the inner workings of Onegin’s mind. It was significant that Onegin only danced with Olga because he was bored. It was also important that he did not actually want to fight Lensky, and only accepted the challenge to duel when Lensky would not be appeased. Onegin is by no means redeemed of his horrible behavior, but Khozashvili’s performance added great depth to the role. All in all, he danced the most emotionally demanding performance of the evening.

Boston Ballet’s Onegin is a moving experience that demonstrates aesthetic beauty, but also digs deep into the rawness of human nature. It takes a skilled company to pull off such a complex ballet, and Boston’s lead dancers rose to the occasion with excellence.

Boston Ballet will perform Onegin through March 6 at the Boston Opera House. Tickets start at $35, and are available on the Boston Ballet website.