American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
Lincoln Center
New York, New York

June 22 and 23, 2017
Eugene Onegin / Vishneva Farewell

Jerry Hochman

For those balletomanes marooned on a distant planet for the past six months or so, Friday night was Diana Vishneva’s farewell performance with American Ballet Theatre after 12 years as a member of the company and guest appearances prior to that. It was a performance of seismic proportions befitting the evening’s significance, one for which superlatives are completely inadequate.

One day earlier, Alessandra Ferri delivered a memorable performance in the same role – Tatiana, in John Cranko’s masterpiece, Onegin.

Ferri and her Onegin partner Roberto Bolle, and Vishneva and her Onegin partner, Marcelo Gomes, also danced back to back performances ten years ago this month – in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon. In my subsequent review, I wrote: “As a semi-professional balletomane for more years than I care to remember, I’ve been privileged to witness many extraordinary performances; performances that will endure as treasured memories as long as what passes for my brain still functions. But I cannot recall having previously seen two consecutive performances that were at such a level of intensity, and brilliance, as the June 14 and 15 [2007] performances of Manon by, respectively, Alessandra Ferri and Roberto Bolle, and Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes.” History tends to repeat itself: the back to back performances of Onegin fit that same description.

Diana Vishneva, Marcelo Gomes, and members and staff of American Ballet Theatre during curtain calls following Vishneva's June 23, 2017 ABT farewell performance Photo by Gene Schiavone

Diana Vishneva, Marcelo Gomes,
and members and staff
of American Ballet Theatre
during curtain calls following Vishneva’s
June 23, 2017 ABT farewell performance
Photo by Gene Schiavone

Vishneva was already an international star by the time she began dancing with ABT, and she arrived complete with appropriate buzz. But no amount of advance hype could compare with the reality of her performances. She doesn’t bowl you over with her technique or characterization, because with Vishneva, the words “technique” and “characterization” are inadequate (and with her, as with all great ballerinas, technical and acting ability are givens). With Vishneva, as with Ferri, it’s not so much the level of her technical ability as defined by athleticism (e.g., how long she can hold a balance; how many fouettes she can do), or her ability to inhabit a character, but by how she delivers the technique and the characterization, and how that delivery impacts the message she transmits.

As I’ve observed previously, Vishneva controls time: the length of time it takes for her to go up or come down off pointe; the extension of her limbs; her incomparable sense of phrasing – and the time the audience spends watching every millimeter of her every movement. All great ballerinas can do that, but with Vishneva, it’s not a personal artifact that stands out so much as a created ambiance. And although her characterization is always right, she never delivers a portrayal exactly the same way twice. To someone who’s never seen her dance that statement may seem contradictory, but it isn’t. It’s both directing and going with the flow, and being in the moment that she, her partner, and the stage situation create.

And she does it without a hint of affectation. I’ve never seen a Vishneva portrayal that was less than compelling, or that was not infused with a level of personal warmth that transcends the proscenium and makes the audience feel what she feels – and want to be on stage with her.

All these ingredients together comprise Vishneva’s incomparable artistry. And that level of artistry infused this farewell ABT performance.

Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes in John Cranko's "Onegin" Photo by Gene Schiavone

Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes
in John Cranko’s “Onegin”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

Onegin is a masterpiece for a reason. The choreographic palette that Cranko uses is limited, but in this case that’s a plus. It’s tight, concurrently intimate and panoramic; it extracts and exploits every ounce of irony in the Pushkin “novel in verse” that is its source; and it’s almost too real. The ballet (including its agglomeration of Tchaikovsky music stitched together so seamlessly by Kurt-Heinz Stolze that it sounds and feels like a unified whole) builds inexorably, one emotional and choreographic crescendo after another, to the wrenching conclusion that drains every ounce of emotional energy from Tatiana, as well as from the audience. Every dance (including dynamite folk-inspired ensemble dances that are far more than the usual filler), every pas de deux, is done the way it’s done for a reason; each as perfectly sculpted as the next. And it culminates in one of those endings – like Romeo and Juliet – that even though you know it’s coming, is an emotional cataclysm impossible to prepare for: an extended, horrifying, hopeless wail of pain.

Perhaps for that reason, I’ve never seen a bad performance of it. Each of the characters is finely drawn, but allows a variety of specific details depending on the personal qualities of the dancers. So it was with Vishneva and Gomes. The basic characters are there: she and Gomes use the choreography and the story as essential templates, as they must, but create their own reality around it, living in the moment as they go.

As with Ferri the night before, Vishneva conveys every ounce of Tatiana’s emotional passage from bookish, shy older sister through the relationship with Onegin that was but really wasn’t and would never be, to the relationship with Onegin that wasn’t but really was and could never be. Were there differences between the two portrayals? Sure, and I’ll mention a few of them generally below, but none that affected the overall quality. Vishneva at 40 still has abundant technical facility that, astounding as her technical facility still is at 54, Ferri no longer has. But in Onegin, technique is camouflaged, and subsumed by emotions. Detailing what she and Ferri did emotionally is pointless: suffice it to say that, in almost indescribably different ways, they achieved the same shattering end.

Gomes’s stage partnership with Vishneva is well documented, and is what I’ve described previously as legendary. As is usual with Gomes, Vishneva was his primary concern, and like Bolle the night before, his partnering was impeccable and extraordinary. There were differences between Gomes’s and Bolle’s characterizations, but they were differences of emphasis, not competence. Within the parameters of the role, Gomes, for example, gave an emotionally varied portrayal – with more animated facial and body movement, even halfheartedly smiling at times, to break the cardboard inherent in Onegin’s character. Bolle didn’t do that – except for the “dream” sequence at the end of Act I, and until the concluding pas de deux, his was a finely chiseled performance, but one as emotionally stiff as a bored board. But Bolle is such a magnetic stage presence that there was no need for him to break the mold. Both were superb portrayals, and both led directly to Onegin’s decision to inject himself so directly, and ultimately so foolishly and tragically, into Tatiana’s Act II birthday festivities.

And, for those attuned to it, Gomes inserted one of his “Gomesisms” (almost imperceptible idiosyncratic throwaways that he inserts into his portrayals) very obviously – at least if you were looking for it. When Onegin first enters the Act II birthday party scene, he usually looks out of place, superfluous, uninterested at best, and already tired of the inanities of country life. Gomes took it a step further. He stopped at the floral entryway, stood there a moment looking soooo bored, sooo above it all, and suddenly…very obviously…yawned. Priceless.

The two casts, overall, left very different impressions; each working as well as it did because, remarkably, the stage personalities and execution by all the cast-members were in perfect balance. To a large extent, this was a consequence of performances by the dancers in the roles of Olga and Lensky, played by Isabella Boylston and Blaine Hoven at Vishneva’s farewell, and by Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin the previous night. Neither set of portrayals was wrong, but they effectively complemented the primary couple, and were as different as night and day.

Alessandra Ferri and Roberto Bolle in John Cranko's "Onegin" Photo by Gene Schiavone

Alessandra Ferri and Roberto Bolle
in John Cranko’s “Onegin”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

Both Vishneva and Ferri delivered delicate but titanic emotional portrayals. But in other respects they were different. There was a sense of weariness in Ferri’s portrayal, as if maybe time had passed her by, until Onegin seemed to show an interest in her. And as I’ve indicated, her Onegin, Bolle, was stiff and formal. Vishneva, on the other hand, was bookish by choice; hers was a more refined, almost elegant-in-simplicity Tatiana, above the daily stresses; while her Onegin, Gomes, was more animated.

On Thursday night, Lane and Simkin seemed polar opposites to Ferri and Bolle. Lane did what she does so impeccably – she floated through the choreography bewitchingly and effortlessly, even handling the difficult partnered en pointe “inward pirouettes” with ease despite having to lower herself while doing so to accommodate Simkin’s height – but she maintained Olga’s effervescent character in the process. Subjectively, compared to Ferri’s older sister, Lane’s Olga was the favored younger sister, the one with the bubbly personality combined with a level of refined elegance that Ferri’s character lacked. And Lane’s astonishingly deep, detailed and crystalline characterization even when she might reasonably have thought no one in the audience would be looking was quite remarkable – for example, when, behind the garden entrance during Act II’s first scene, she tried to calm Lensky down after her initial round of dances with Onegin, I could see every detail as she implored him to be understanding and reasonable; and when she was temporarily the dealer at “Onegin’s card table,” I could clearly see her mime her way through the game – including, at a certain moment, how many cards were to be played (four). Simply exquisite in every way. What a remarkable, principal-quality season Lane has had! And Simkin’s Lensky was as hot as Bolle’s Onegin was cold. As weak as I’ve sometimes asserted that Simkin’s acting has been in other roles, he made up for it here. He was volcanic.

I did not have the same sense with Boylston’s Olga or Hoven’s Lensky as with Lane’s and Simkin’s – but their portrayals worked with their cast. In the opening scene in Act I, where Lane floated, Boylston presented at the beginning of Act I as a ballerina-in-a-china-shop. It’s a consequence of the way she moves. I’ve described Boylston previously as not being a cookie-cutter ballerina. There isn’t anything particularly ethereal or classical about her delivery – but she’s powerful, and although she executes the same choreographic steps, there’s a significant difference in presentation. Here she possessed the same bubbly personality as Lane, but she lacked any sense of refinement, and she burst into every combination with the same level of intensity. Later, I focused on the same scenes that I mentioned above, and the results were muddy. Although I knew it was happening, in the same “off-view” conversation with Lensky, the details looked “skimmed”; less…detailed. And with the card game – I looked, but saw no detail at all beyond the fact that there was this card game that the three (Olga, Lensky, and Onegin) were involved in. Overall, she appeared to me as the somewhat bratty little sister who insists on being the center of attention. But with Vishneva’s Tatiana as the refined, elegant older sister, they balanced each other, and it worked.

Similarly, Hoven’s Lensky played off Gomes’s more animated Onegin. Hoven wasn’t so much a poet (as the character of Lensky is described) as a young aristocrat with a somewhat stiff upper-crust carriage on the same social level as his friend Onegin. But in context, again, this worked very well. Hoven lowered the volume on Boylston’s Olga, played off Gomes’s more animated Onegin, and delivered a fine, albeit different, characterization from Simkin that complemented the other members of the cast. Hoven has improved markedly in every respect this season, with an understated internalization that adds emotional buffeting to his increasingly refined exterior presence.

This balance was also reflected in the role of Prince Gremin, the man Tatiana eventually marries. The portrayals of James Whiteside on Thursday and Roman Zhurbin on Friday were similar and appropriate – militarily stiff. But Whiteside’s character was a much younger presence, and Ferri’s Tatiana seemed really to love him and the elegant world he provided for her; whereas Zhurbin’s character’s relationship with Vishneva’s already elegant Tatiana was one of acceptance and respect on her part, but not much more.

Perhaps the complementary casting was an accidental consequence of ensembles assembled as they were for reasons having nothing to do with a balance of stage temperament. Regardless, for both performances, the casting turned out to be most fortuitous.

Diana Vishneva, Marcelo Gomes, and members of American Ballet Theatre during curtain calls following Vishneva's June 23, 2017 ABT farewell performance Photo by Gene Schiavone

Diana Vishneva, Marcelo Gomes,
and members of American Ballet Theatre
during curtain calls following Vishneva’s
June 23, 2017 ABT farewell performance
Photo by Gene Schiavone

After the calamitous final moments of Act III concluded, and after the curtain came down on Vishneva’s final ABT performance, the audience, which had largely kept its emotions bottled up through most of the evening (in part at least because Onegin’s staging doesn’t allow for stop-action curtain calls) exploded, and the festivities began. ABT farewells are somewhat predictable: confetti falls from the rafters, the cast tosses flowers; bouquet after bouquet is placed at the ballerina’s feet by principals and company administrators, and the applause and cheers from the audience continue long past what normally would be a final curtain.

But, of course, with Vishneva things are a little different – primarily because this was Vishneva, because her partner was Gomes, and because of the obvious affection they have for each other. It was epic. They hugged; they kissed; Gomes lifted her and whirled her around; Vishneva lowered her arms down Gomes’s torso echoing what Gomes as Onegin did to Vishneva as Tatiana during the final moments of the ballet’s concluding pas de deux. Gomes seemed…humbled…to be in her presence and to be honored by her; and as the company’s de facto captain he led the applause for her and cradled her fragile emotions, whispering to her what he was going to do (like leaving her alone in front of the curtain) in advance, to gain her approval before disappearing. Vishneva seemed beside herself with that combination of sadness and joy that a farewell performance brings — cubed. And after about half an hour of flowers and bows and applause and cheers and tears, the curtain came down on Vishneva’s ABT career for the last time.

Maybe.

Vishneva is far from a career end point, and although she’s moving on to pursue other goals, I wonder. I’m reasonably sure that she’ll continue to perform classical ballet roles, and that the Vishneva/Gomes partnership will continue in other venues. So who knows. Ten years ago to the day, amid flowers, tears, and cheers, Ferri retired from dancing with ABT. A year ago, Ferri “unretired.” History does tend to repeat itself. So, maybe there’s still some life left in my comment about her in a celebratory 2009 essay: that when I see Vishneva dance, “I hear the siren calling: ‘come watch me dance; come dance with me; the best is yet to be.’”