High Drama at Houston Ballet with Cranko’s Onegin

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Barbara Bears and James Gotesky
Photo by Jim Caldwell

Houston Ballet opened the 36th season with a serious tone in New Orleans native Mireille Hassenboehler’s heartfelt curtain talk. She thanked the people of Houston for their generosity and reminded audiences to donate to the United Way’s Katrina fund.

There was no shortage of drama in John Cranko’s 1967 masterpiece Onegin. In Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse, Cranko found a story of ill-fated romance ripe with psychological intrigue. Onegin, easily considered to be Cranko’s strongest narrative work, demonstrates his profound abilities to tell a story in and through dance. And, what a story it is, filled with doomed love, regret, cruelty, and gut-wrenching drama.

Barbara Bears convinced as the bookish, but prone to poor choices, Tatiana. Bears’ nonchalant athleticism provided a perfect match for Cranko’s complex, airborne choreography. Why this aloof girl falls for the snobbish Onegin is part of the mystery of the story. Simon Ball, cool and detached as ever, played up Onegin’s loutish ways with a haunting authority. It was evident from the get go, he was in it for himself. Ball’s steely demeanor made that clear.

Laura Richards bubbled with innocent charm as Olga, Tatiana’s simple, but perky sister. Zdenek Konvalina danced Olga’s fiancée, Lensky, with honor despite a few unsteady moments.

In the final act, when Onegin is reduced to begging for Tatiana’s love, Onegin almost wins forgiveness. Cranko is at his best in the final duet between Tatiana and Onegin. Ball and Bears tore through the rough and jagged terrain of love with no possibility of a future with clipped precision alternating with soulful passion. It was a riveting conclusion of a story about difficult choices.

Tatiana had the final word as she unmercifully tore up Onegin’s letter as he had done earlier to her. He fled and Tatiana was left with the final tear as well. Bears handled the last moments of the ballet with a mature, understated depth. She’s done the right thing and banished the lout, but her pain and loss were palpable.

Reprinted from Artshouston, October 2005

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