Go Team!

By Leigh Witchel

Once all the rose petals have been swept up, we head back to reality. Diana Vishneva’s farewell was a memory, and every show at American Ballet Theatre can’t be an anniversary or a gala.

But reality has its strong points. Vishneva’s adieu had more show-stopping moments, but the quartet leading “Onegin” at the next outing – Stella Abrera, Corey Stearns, Cassandra Trenary and Joseph Gorak – turned out a performance where the drama bubbled with clarity and coherence.

Stearns may look like Prince Charming, but that’s a red herring. He excels at darker characters. His Onegin was young, handsome and neither as smart nor as sophisticated as he thought he was. Stearns’ Onegin was a few years older than Tatiana, and his condescension when he glanced at the book Tatiana was reading was the sort a twentysomething has for a teenager. His smile was bright when first met Tatiana; he didn’t overplay Onegin’s melancholy as proto-emo. He only gave away his sadness when he danced: the way he took an arabesque turn with a long leg outwards, or how he touched his wrist to his brow. When he finished a pose in his first solo, the tautness of his muscles sagged in resignation like air out of a balloon.

Abrera approached Tatiana naturalistically. Vishneva’s heroine was larger than life, and filled with signature moments – she turned a crossover of bourrées heading backwards into an applause machine. Abrera’s Tatiana didn’t do those gasp-inducing feats, but delivered a full, organic interpretation. She absorbed herself in her book, rather than showing you how absorbed she was in her book. Instead of stepping out of a movie screen, she walked up to you in the street.

The first act duet with Stearns and Abrera similarly didn’t garner storms of applause at climactic lifts – even though all of it went very well. But it was seamless and clearly characterized – Stearns was more passionate in a way that made it clear that he was not Onegin, but a figment of Tatiana’s imagination that did exactly what she dreamed.

Act 2 returned to naturalism, but the complex motivations – or lack of them – leading up to the challenge and duel made sense. When Onegin entered with a yawn and shook his head in impatience at other guests, Stearns conveyed the ennui of someone who’s seen much less than he thinks he has.

Onegin’s rejection of Tatiana was recognizable to anyone who’s ever loved and not had it returned, right down to the annoyance disguised as kindness in Stearns’ rebuff. Abrera’s pain was quick and sharp as she stood there with the letter he neatly ripped in four. Her variation afterwards in Act 2 was smooth, understated and conversational. Abrera danced the whole solo to Stearns as he ignored her, playing cards, and finally slammed down the deck, and pushed the situation to its fatal conclusion.

If there’s any part of Pushkin’s saga that makes it into the ballet only by the skin of its teeth, it’s why Onegin insists on flirting with Olga and goading Lensky. Onegins over the years have injected many subtexts, including mental instability, but in Pushkin, it’s his pique at being trapped with these rubes in the country. Stearns seduced Olga on a whim, but also made it an alpha dog maneuver; he did it to show Lensky (who is a few years younger) who’s boss. The more he riled Lensky, the more he kept it up. Even Tatiana saw what was going on when she returned to the party and tried to stop him.

Joseph Gorak in “Onegin.” Photo © Rosalie O’Connor.

Cassandra Trenary and Joseph Gorak looked wonderful as Olga and Lensky. Trenary’s position at ABT mirrors Olga: she’s young, bright and on the rise. Small but long-limbed, she’s a marvelous technician yet dances with ease. The two portrayed young love beautifully: clean, unforced and yet you sensed the power they have only started to tap. Gorak also can partner Trenary easily, but she barely needs assistance. His reputation in this role preceded him, and his variation was extraordinary. His turns were secure and calm. He started them with a single clean impetus and made transitions and finishes with no distortion in his axis – at that level, technique becomes a poetic utterance.

Leading up to the duel, Gorak piled more hysteria into Lensky, while Stearns stayed calm, accepting the challenge with a single small nod. Yet he was hurled backwards at the slap as if he didn’t know it was coming. Trenary also made Olga complex. She enjoyed the flirting, but also cast glances at first to Lensky wondering if he were going to stop it.

Stearns is a less-is-more actor, relying on moments of stillness to convey the impact on Onegin; after the duel or just standing there after Tatiana’s dance with Prince Gremin in Act 3 as his own folly ate at him.

The final scene, usually carried by a tidal wave of emotion, was just as simple and direct. It was easy to sense what he was feeling as he grabbed Tatiana’s hand to stop her from going: please. Her resolve cracked as she felt Onegin’s hands pass down her body. You could sense the longing she felt when he fell to the floor to beg her forgiveness, or when she fell backwards into his arms and flipped to hold him close.

Yet you never doubted for a moment that she would send him away. It was going to tear her apart, but she was determined from the moment she held Onegin’s letter, burning her hands like fire, and shook her head. A detail in the Loquasto set design that I didn’t notice until curtain call: a rocking horse and ball at the side of Tatiana’s boudoir that suggested yet another urgent reason to stay.

When Abrera ripped up his letter, Stearns threw it to the side, refusing to believe her. Her finger, emphatically pointing to leave, was confirmation, and only when he ran out heartbroken did she acknowledge the cost.

Onegin has gotten a bum rap in New York, from Arlene Croce’s dismissal during Stuttgart’s first U.S. showings, but when Croce hated something, she despised it with the fury of a Grand Inquisitor burning heretics. The ballet pours its energy not into choreographic structure, but its three monumental duets with the group dances shunted into the corners. But even if the piers and girders of the ballet don’t glisten like Balanchine’s, the rejoinder is the half-century of great performances it has offered dancers. It’s a great vehicle, and that can’t be discounted.

Repeated viewings show Cranko offering more, even in the group dances. The dance to a ghostly waltz in Act 3 for Onegin and the corps women is a discreet, classical metaphor for the passage of time and partners. Cranko takes an adult idea: the women stand in, one by one, for the lovers Onegin took to try and put the past out of his mind – a journey with no point and no destination except escape – and said it all in a classical dance without a single explicit reference.

But at this matinee, what made the strongest case for “Onegin,” more than the steps, or any one performance, or a breathtaking stunt, was great teamwork.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Onegin” – American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY
June 24, 2017 matinee

Cover: American Ballet Theatre in “Onegin.” Photo © Gene Schiavone

American Ballet Theatre’s spring season runs through July 8.

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