San Francisco Ballet’s Program 8 carries with it a hint of melancholy, of imminent change. This is, after all, the last program of the season, and precursor to the long wait between seasons. Melancholy also describes John Cranko’s mood suffusing masterful Onegin, which opened Saturday night at the War Memorial Opera House. Premiered in 1965 at the Stuttgart Ballet, last seen here in 2013, the ballet is elegant, stirring, and a powerful finish to the company’s 2016 repertory season. 

Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz in Cranko's <i>Onegin</i> © Erik Tomasson
Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz in Cranko's Onegin
© Erik Tomasson

The ballet staged by Jane Bourne and Reid Anderson, is based on Alexander Pushkin’s 1837 classic, the verse novel, Eugene Onegin. Tatiana is a naïve young Russian, bookish but full of romantic illusions. In advance of a celebration, her sister’s fiancé, Lensky, has brought a friend: the attractive, aloof urbanite, Onegin. Tatiana is dazzled and that night writes him a love letter, pouring out her feelings. But at the party the next evening, Onegin, bored and impatient, tears up her letter in front of her. He then goes on to flirt extravagantly with Tatiana’s flighty sister, Olga, to see what mischief he can conjure up against the hapless Lensky. Things go too far and Lensky, enraged, challenges him to a duel. There, Lensky dies and Onegin flees. Years pass before Tatiana encounters Onegin again. By then, she is happily married (to a prince, at that) and Onegin’s arrival at their palace ball stuns them both. Onegin, newly smitten, seeks her out privately. But this time Tatiana resists her impulses, the love she still feels, and orders him out of her life.

The late John Cranko, whose promising career as a choreographer and artistic director of the Stuttgart Ballet was cut short when he died at 46, left behind mesmerizing choreography that is classical yet inventive, with lifts, leaps and twists. Casting for the opening night was equally impressive. Lauren Strongin, as the flirtatious Olga, brought carefree exuberance to the role. Gennadi Nedvigin’s Lensky was thoughtful, complex, spanning cheery frivolity to existential sorrow. Maria Kochetkova was so convincing as the young, impressionable Tatiana, it almost hurt to watch her set herself in Onegin’s path. Her whole body spoke of adolescent vulnerability and dewy eyed infatuation. In her bedroom at night, ghostly blue-grey moonlight coming through the tall, curtained windows (lighting design James F. Ingalls), she danced a dream pas de deux with Onegin, alternately clinging and being tossed about, in pure, luscious abandon.

As the self-absorbed Onegin, Vitor Luiz was brilliant, his dancing clean, precise, assured. Turns were executed with the back of his hand to his brow as if weary of the burden of his sophistication. He preened as Tatiana skimmed across the stage in bourrés behind him, face alight with hopeful anticipation that faded when she realized he wasn’t paying attention to anyone but himself. In a humorous touch, we see him gallantly offer Tatiana his arm to escort her walking, but the impatient twitch of the fingers of his other hand, behind his back, reveal his irritation with the ritual and her over-eager infatuation.

Lauren Strongin and Gennadi Nedvigin in Cranko's <i>Onegin</i> © Erik Tomasson
Lauren Strongin and Gennadi Nedvigin in Cranko's Onegin
© Erik Tomasson
Cranko eschewed excessive pantomime in his ballets in favor of movement to propel the story forward, and the result is that we are never far from the next pas de deux or ensemble piece. The San Francisco Ballet has a stellar roster of corps de ballet dancers, and they filled the stage with lively dancing. Particularly memorable was a fast-moving string of partnered grands jetés that went down one diagonal of the stage and then the other, and later, the sumptuous Act Three ballroom scene. Costumes and set, designed by Santo Loquasto and on loan from The National Ballet of Canada, were dazzling to behold.

What is so powerful about the final pas de deux in Act Three, as a world-weary, beaten Onegin tries to win Tatiana back, is how differently the two dance, as if they've changed personas. Now Kochetkova has the stiffer demeanor and Luiz the yearning pliancy as he drapes himself over her, holds her tighter. In overhead lifts, you can almost see the battle raging within her, as passionate love battles with the virtue of a steadier, more trustworthy kind. 

Joan Boada, as Tatiana’s husband, Prince Gremin, completed the cast, performing this final role before retiring at the end of the season. Nedvigin as well is retiring (to take on the artistic directorship of the Atlanta Ballet), which made Lensky’s solo, prior to the duel, seem particularly elegiac. His clean jumps and turns, his nuanced presentation, have him ending his career here on a high note, albeit a bittersweet one for his fans.

Music director Martin West led the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra through a stirring score of Tchaikovsky piano and orchestral excerpts, arranged and orchestrated by Kurt-Heinz Stolze.

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