It's winter in San Francisco, it's cold (or at least gray), and the San Francisco Ballet's 2012 season has kicked off this week with a heavy, Russian tragedy. (Save the whimsical Don Quixote for spring when spirits are lighter.) Through Friday, the War Memorial Opera House is sunk into 1820s Russia, when social class determined destiny, and women had few opportunities other than to love and yearn to be loved.
The ballet is Onegin, based on the poem by Alexander Pushkin -- the tale of a urban sophisticate who rejects the innocent country girl, kills his friend, and then returns later only to be rejected by country-girl-made-good and sink into bitter loneliness and regret. (We're guessing Pushkin may have been a "glass half-empty" type.)
Onegin has also been turned into an opera and even adapted into a dark little film starting Ralph Fiennes and Liv Tyler. But the ballet is the creation of John Cranko, first staged in 1965 by the Stuttgart Ballet, set to a score arranged by Kurt-Heinz Stolze that mixes various pieces by Tchaikovsky. The set and costumes come to us from Santo Loquasto, perhaps best known for being Woody Allen's designer in 24 productions. The point of all this shameless name dropping? The talent runs deep, and that's before the ballerinas show up.
About those ballerinas: Oh, you dancers in the San Francisco Ballet, must you be so perfect? Must you remind us that the vast majority of us shamble through our entire lives with the most banal movements, in the most slobbish of postures, the most undisciplined bodies?
Tuesday night we were reminded yet again by Vitor Luiz, a Brazilian dancer who brought a sharp elegance to the loathsome Eugene Onegin -- his black coat tails slicing through the air like a propeller as he launched on a series of pirouettes. Tatiana, the country-girl-made-good, was danced by Moscow native Maria Kochetkova, a tiny, delicate woman of the type who may board Muni unnoticed, yet commands you to look only at her on stage. (Sorry, Onegin.) The two launch on a series of pas de deux -- as Tatiana falls in love with Onegin at a country ball, in Tatiana's dream as she pens her love letter to him, and again at the end of the ballet, as Onegin returns to ask for her love.
The ballet allures not only with the unflappable technique of its dancers but the lush sets that pull magnificent depth from the War Memorial stage. I was stunned last season by the other-worldy set of The Little Mermaid, the creative ways in which the design separated the terrestrial and aquatic spheres. Onegin deals in more traditional spaces -- dance halls, bedrooms -- yet the visual feast returns as Onegin meets his friend, Lensky, in a grove of silver birch trees for a duel. The hearty florals, browns, and oranges of the former scenes give way to bolder, crisper hues for this dramatic climax: Lensky wears mustard, performing a mournful solo as he realizes he's as doomed as a hunted stag. Tatiana and her sister, Olga, rush into the blue set in lush purple and navy blue dresses. The three once again dance a brief trio, Tatyana flinging herself (oh, so gracefully, mind you) onto Lensky's back. But what must happen does, and Onegin kills his friend with a clear, loud shot.
Kochetkova showed incredible range: she is the willowy, petite embodiment of innocence while dancing Tatiana in the first two acts, no more weighty than a kite in the wind. Yet as we rediscover her in the third act as the trophy wife of a much older prince in St. Petersburg, the flighty, passionate exuberance of her young love for Onegin has slowed into grander movements of restraint within her sensible, upper-class life.
In the final scene, Tatiana re-encounters Onegin, now the nervous suitor presenting her with a love letter just as she once did to him. Their final duet is a spot-on interpretation of the tortured emotions in such meetings -- at some points they embrace, re-enacting steps from Tatiana's love letter years before. The next moment, Tatiana flings Onegin off. Onegin lifts her, and she yields -- joyful. She strides forward as Onegin crawls behind -- destroyed. She finally points behind her to the door. Onegin runs out, and Tatiana's tiny frame heaves in sobs from the loss, her hands gripped into fists, her head raised to the heavens as the curtain drops.
Very Russian. Very good. See it by Friday.