Last week I treated myself to two performances of “Onegin” by the American Ballet Theatre. Never have I seen the same ballet back to back like this, and I wouldn’t have done so if it wasn’t for the super stellar casts lined up for this week. (Luckily I was blessed with a membership with the Theater Development Fund, which allows me to buy tickets with very little money as I wouldn’t have been able to afford the full-priced tickets.) On June 23, the lead dancers were Alessandra Ferri, Roberto Bolle, Sarah Lane, Daniil Simkin and James Whiteside. On June 25, they were Hee Seo, David Hallberg, Skylar Brandt, Jeffrey Cirio and Thomas Forster. I missed the June 24 performance featuring Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes. It was Diana’s farewell performance marking the end of her 12-year tenure with the company. Unfortunately the tickets to this show was sold out long before I made the purchase, so I missed the opportunity to see her superb performance and hyper emotional curtain call. Luckily it was captured on video. Here is a clip by fellow balletomane Irving Chow:
For a review of Diana’s farewell performance, check out Dance Magazine’s article [here].
Now, let me share my own review of the two shows that I attended.
It was with great anticipation that I entered the theater expecting nothing but the best from the ballet diva Alessandra Ferri and her long-time fellow Italian dance god Roberto Bolle. Last year I had the chance to see Ferri perform briefly in a contemporary piece with Herman Cornejo at the “Fall for Dance” festival at New York City Center. I felt I didn’t get enough of her dancing. So when I knew she was going to perform a full-length ballet, and with Bolle—no less, I jumped at the chance!
In the first act, Ferri danced the role of teenage Tatiana. Her body language, even when not dancing, convinced the audience that it was indeed a wide-eyed, inexperienced teenager who is shy and steeped in her own fantasy world of romantic novels. Her amazing and nimble footwork belies the fact that she is 54 years of age. But what made me—and the whole audience—gasp in astonishment again and again, was in her two epic pas de deux with Onegin, danced by Bolle, she threw and hurled herself into the arms of her partner with total abandon. I guess there was a slight fear among us… what if she missed the mark? But no! What we saw was 100-percent trust between her and Bolle. The two PPDs are highly demanding in terms of technique and stamina, but the two dancers excelled in every way. I particularly appreciate the dream sequence where Tatiana dances with Onegin who came into her bedroom through the mirror. The partnering moves are extremely intricate and there is such a heightened sense of romanticism. This was my favorite part of the ballet in Thursday’s performance.
Bolle was perfect for the role of Onegin. The coldness with which he portrayed the aristocratic character was absolutely convincing. I couldn’t help but heard myself cursing him, “Bastard!” multiple times throughout the ballet.
Daniil Simkin danced the role of Lensky, Onegin’s friend who was in love with Tatiana’s sister Olga. He made a perfect interpretation as a devoted young man who believes in ideal love and loyalty. His acting was heartfelt and his solo was particularly “delicious,” a wonderful showcase of his forté—multiple pirouettes that were not only technically perfect (and I noticed how wide of an arm carriage he held) but also expressed Lensky’s rage, affliction and desperation right before the duel with Onegin.
Sarah Lane danced Olga. While she made a solid performance in the supporting role of Olga, there was a certain restraint and control that didn’t quite befit this role… I much prefer the interpretation of Skylar Brandt on Saturday evening’s show. She danced with an open heart with almost a childlike wonderment.
As for the role of the the handsome, attentive and strong Prince Gremin, who married Tatiana, both James Whiteside on the first evening and Thomas Forster in the Saturday show gave solid performances. Whiteside was gentlemanly, loving and elegant while Forster was warm, graceful and protective. I like both’s pas de deux with the mature Tatiana. It was a beautiful dance that symbolizes a fulfilled marriage, with so much love and mutual respect between husband and wife.
The last scene in Act II was a heartwrenching one. The overarching emotion that governs this part of the story is regret, as Onegin realizes that he has missed the opportunity to marry this fine lady. While he tries to woo her back with desperation, Tatiana wouldn’t grant him his wish. Ferri’s interpretation of this scene was that of a dignified woman with a strong resolve and spite for this “bastard.” There was a lot of anger in her pas de deux with Bolle—like a tug of war sometimes. Long before she tore up Onegin’s letter, I could already sense her decision to refuse his advances. Again, the movements were incredibly demanding but she and Bolle pulled it off beautifully. She may not swirl around as quickly or extend her legs as high as her younger self but the depth of her acting made its mark in every single step.
It was a happy fest after the show as a big crowd gathered at the stage door waiting to greet the dancers. I was extremely satisfied to have met these super stars of ballet, especially Ferri and Bolle, whom I have dreamt of meeting for a long time! I joked with Bolle after he signed his autograph on my playbill: “Now I can die happy!” He laughed. Needless to say, it was difficult for me to fall asleep that night.
Now, onto the second show. My biggest wish was to see my top favorite dancer, David Hallberg. After seeing him make his stage comeback in “Whipped Cream” last month, I wanted to see more.
Wonderful to have a passionate balletomane, Jia Chen, to watch the show together!
David Hallberg and Hee Seo’s interpretations of the lead roles were starkly different from what I had seen with Ferri and Bolle’s. Hee Seo was extremely restrained in her emotions during the first act. She was an inward-looking, desperately shy teenager who may appeared a bit stiff at first but her lack of external facial expressions beguiles the internal upheavals that boiled underneath her as she dreamed of Onegin. Her pas de deux with Hallberg was technically superb but I preferred the PPD between Ferri and Bolle for this scene as I felt there was more abandon and chemistry in the latter.
Hallberg was perfect in this role of a chilly aristocratic dandy and the elegant, princely way with which he moved was a constant delight throughout the evening. The audience was ecstatic to see him come back to the stage with so much confidence, not just in his dancing but a deeper emotional reach with his acting. The shifts in his feelings for Tatiana—from spite to discovery to remorse and desperation—was carefully measured with great control and subtlety, and his interpretation of the character is layered so that he was not just the “bastard,” but the “bastard with a heart.”
In the scene where Tatiana danced with her husband, we could see Hallberg’s facial expression turn from surprise to awakening to shock and then remorse.
His acting turned an otherwise caricature into a very real person, someone whom you and I might have encountered.
Hee Seo’s own transformation on stage from an inexperienced teenager in love to a mature lady was beautiful and natural. And her acting in the final bedroom scene was superb. I find a stronger sense of regret in her acting than in Ferri’s. She was almost persuaded and tempted by Onegin’s seduction, as Onegin was not just an older bastard this time around, but was showing his deep remorse for having been utterly foolish in scorning Tatiana in her youth, rejecting her and even killing Lensky after trying to seduce Olga out of his boredom.
The chemistry between Hee Seo and Hallberg was electrifying. In every move, she exuded a deep longing for the love she once lost while pulling away from the temptation, while Hallberg pranced after her like a tiger, capturing her in the signature gesture of this ballet—encircling Tatiana’s body from head to toe with both arms. Hee Seo was turned on again and again and the suspense heightened as whether she would succumb to his temptation before the ballet approached the end.
This PPD was astounding in every way and brought down the whole house. What a triumph! And what a comeback by Hallberg!
This was my first time to watch “Onegin” and I have to say I really loved it above all other story ballets. Its realism, the pace of the drama and its acting are superb. It is a big test for the maturity of the lead dancers in conveying the internal emotional conflicts of the characters and ABT’s choices for the casts couldn’t have been better.
David Hallberg expressed his gratitude for being able to dance again on his Instagram account:
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Through a three year battle to stand on stage again, it's hard to describe how it feels. Before was another life; more greedy, different emotions all together. Now; its more vital, real, deeply honest, and internally meaningful. It was taken away from me and to experience it given back I'll never take a moment like a bow at the end of an evening for granted. It will never be just the end of an evening. But deep thanks for the privilege of allowing me to dance once more on any stage. Captured by @patrickfrenette
Here is a video of the curtain calls on both evenings: