It would be hard to overstate just how beloved Alexander Pushkin's 19th century poem "Eugene Onegin" is to the Russian people. It has inspired Tchaikovsky's famous opera and John Cranko's 1965 ballet, and its translation alone has sparked endless controversies. So there's a whiff of hubris surrounding Boris Eifman's re-envisioning of this classic romantic story, which received its West Coast premiere when Cal Performances presented Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg in Zellerbach Hall over the weekend.
By the same token, though, it would be hard to overstate the popularity of the Eifman Ballet, an intense and dramatically gifted troupe of 55 dancers, founded by artistic director and choreographer Boris Eifman in the 1970s.
If you're looking for the lyricism of Cranko's choreography, however, the romanticism of Tchaikovsky's opera, or really anything resembling Pushkin's czarist-era tale, this is probably not your ballet. True, a naive young Tatiana still falls in love with the cynical and feckless Onegin, and he needlessly kills her sister's fiance, Lensky. Tatiana still marries a blind colonel and rejects Onegin's advances in the end, but that's about all that's left of the original.
Once you let your preconceptions go and decide not to worry about details of the story line, you can sit back and simply enjoy the stream of bizarre dream episodes, the high-flying acrobatic pas de deux and the seductively mesmerizing rock concert panache.
Set to a recorded pastiche of greatest hits from Tchaikovsky interspersed with screaming rock guitar solos by Alexander Sitkovetsky, this "Onegin" unfolds in a turbulent post-Soviet milieu, a reasonable parallel to the nihilism of 19th century Russia.
As the dewy-eyed, bookish Tatiana, Maria Abashova is charmingly gawky and coltish, though the sheer muscle behind her textbook pitch turns would make a Martha Graham dancer blanch. Abashova pairs well, interestingly enough, with the engaging Natalia Povoroznyuk, who plays her sister, Olga. By turns louche and anguished, Oleg Gabyshev's handsome Onegin overshadows Dmitry Fisher's Lensky, but it's Sergei Volobuev who seems to have the most fun - in unrelieved black, from his beret and shades to his shiny jacket, except for a thick gold chain around his neck - as the blind colonel.
It would be too simplistic to dismiss Eifman's style as all flash and shameless eroticism. His attempts to take a venerated Russian story and place it in the context of the New Russia may be audacious, but they also reveal not just an undeniably appealing streak of wild romanticism, but a keenly observed parable about the self-questioning doubt that dogs the modern Russian character - and the destructive yearning for the unattainable hearts' desire that dogs us all.This review first appeared on SFGate.com.