The Goodbyes are the Best Part

By Leigh Witchel

Diana Vishneva’s farewell to American Ballet Theatre seemed less of a retirement and more of a celebration. After her performance in “Onegin,” the show started all over again at the bows.

Vishneva won’t stop dancing, but she is stepping back from the grueling pace of company life in great form. It was hard to register much decline in a role that showed off what she does best: theatricality dialed to 11.

Vishneva’s physique is small and delicate, and she knows the art of being partnered. Cranko’s “Onegin,” which involves one showstopping pas de deux after another, gave us all-you-can-eat of Vishneva’s long lines and weightlessness.  In some ways, the coda of her career recalls Makarova’s: they have similar builds, so both were credible in ingénue roles until the end. Both were also strong dance actresses and discriminating about their repertory.

Also like Makarova, Vishneva’s gift as a dancer isn’t spontaneity, but planning.  Her Tatiana, like her Giselle, had a clear road map with the stops marked out beforehand. How she read a book as the curtain rose, how she glanced at the book, how she held the book, exactly how she was lost in thought before she returned to the book . . . It was artifice, but at the level where Vishneva can control her effects, it was exquisite.

Vishneva’s farewell wasn’t meant to be a testimony to Marcelo Gomes’ extraordinary skills as a partner, but there you have it. He never saved her (she never needed him to) but he freed her so that she could do absolutely anything she desired with full abandon. He swung her round him in the Act 1 pas de deux as if she might leave orbit, but she was utterly secure in his care. She fell at his feet during the curtain call, and he deserved it.

It’s fascinating to watch Gomes grow older and wiser in roles such as Onegin. His tours may not have landed in an airtight fifth position but his range and color has increased. His first variation was danced pianissimo with low jumps and soundless landings as if to reflect the character’s melancholy.

If there was any sign of Vishneva being justified in shelving these roles, it may have been in her Act 2 solo. She didn’t blow anything, but if you looked hard enough, you could see the increased effort it took to land the turns smoothly.

Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes in “Onegin.” Photo © Gene Schiavone.

When Gomes stood behind her and ripped up her confession of love, he did it with a complex mix of anger and pity. Vishneva’s reaction was unalloyed: pain. Tatiana doesn’t explode in disappointment, she crumples into herself. And yet Vishneva’s  Tatiana turned into an observer at her own party, watching Olga snub Lensky, and trying in vain to curb him.

Onegin’s impetuous decision to keep toying with Olga made sense in the moment but less so over the arc of the act. Gomes seemed to think “What the hell?” and went off to flirt with disaster. It was like someone fatally intoxicated by the rush of Russian roulette. Tatiana has always been easier to understand: her emotions are more straightforward and we see them from her perspective.

At the end of Act 2 we experienced Gomes’ trademark onstage emotion: regret. From the sorrow at the crossover before the duel to the collapse at the end of the act, we saw Gomes throw himself full throttle into cringing despair, and nobody does it better.

That set the scene for the final duet, and both Vishneva and Gomes were loaded for bear. She knew exactly what she wanted and both of them let it rip in a way that was so planned it seemed spontaneous. Tatiana had no clue what she was going to do when she saw Onegin race into her chamber. Her desire was overwhelming, and his repentance searing. The right move could have pushed her out the door with him.

Perhaps the most stunning partnering effect was when she fell into him during the diagonal at the big tune.  Gomes flipped her faster than seemed possible into a desperate clutching embrace. She was consigning her body to him, and fate. Here’s The New Yorker’s feature with Vishneva and Gomes in rehearsal for this performance (that moment is at about 0:43)

She didn’t so much as tell him to go as went on automatic pilot – like a hypnotized and sleepwalking girl somehow calling down to the depths of her subconscious to save herself from a vampire’s embrace. She pushed the letter at Gomes, ripped it up in a trance and stood alone as if she barely understood what had just happened.

Vishneva’s effects may have looked calculated but that doesn’t mean she does the same thing every time. Her letter scene is online with Alexander Volchkov, and she does it differently, more resolute in her fidelity.

Gomes and Vishneva were drained at the curtain. It took quite a while before she could smile again but if Carrie Imler’s farewell in Seattle was a family affair, Vishneva’s was a public ceremony.

All the principals presented her with large bouquets one by one. She bounced up and down with glee when she saw Roberto Bolle. Gomes slipped away to reenter with a bouquet. She flung her arms open and he lifted her airborne round and round. Vishneva returned the favor and picked up Irina Kolpakova in a hug during a shower of rose petals.

When she came in front of the curtain for an opera call she wrapped herself in the curtain before coming forward to accept more of our adulation. How could she leave the stage? It’s the place where her artifice becomes real.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Onegin” – American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY
June 23, 2017

Cover: The curtain call of Diana Vishneva’s farewell performance.  Photo © Gene Schiavone

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

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