The entire audience cheered as they lifted their iPhones to capture the teary-faced Diana Vishneva's gratitude toward Marcelo Gomes.
Last Friday, the great Russian ballerina said goodbye to American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House. Vishneva and Gomes danced a powerful Onegin, and we didn't want to let them go. During the stream of greetings from her fellow principals that is part of the farewell tradition, Marcelo re-entered the stage, rushing to Vishneva to lift her up and spin her around. She instantly threw her arms open and her head back, as though saying, "I am free when I'm with you."
Vishneva is one of the most treasured ballerinas of our time. Her effect on audiences is spellbinding. As Tatiana in John Cranko's Onegin, she transformed from a shy, cruelly spurned girl to a woman torn by passion. As a young girl with a rich interior life, she moved slowly almost as though under water. As a married woman who suddenly has power over the man she had been hopelessly in love with, she is caught between splintered emotions.
Her every step moved the story along. In the first act, her arabesque expressed pining for Onegin; the emboitées were agitation. Her parallel bourrées carried her toward Onegin involuntarily, as though fate were pulling her. Those quick, floating steps expressed the lines of Tatiana's letter to the man she loved. To quote Pushkin, the author of Onegin: "It is ordained by higher powers…It is heaven's will: I am yours."
When Gomes as Onegin slammed his hands on the desk in exasperation, he might as well have ripped her heart from her chest. Reeling from the violent rejection, Vishneva staggered around, utterly lost.
While Vishneva's portrayal of unrequited love was powerful, equally potent was the warmth of her sisterhood toward Olga. After Onegin kills his friend Lensky in a duel, Tatiana is so overcome with sympathy for her sister that she covers Olga with her body, trying to comfort her. Vishneva gives herself, body and soul, to the role.
In the last pas de deux, when Onegin begs the married Tatiana for her love, Vishneva melts in Gomes' embrace, almost willing to carry the weight of his regret. She is like the prow of a ship, tugging the barge that is Onegin. She knows that if she kisses him she will be lost and her happy life with Prince Gremin will be destroyed.
The role of Tatiana is one of the most taxing roles in ballet. As Evan McKie wrote in "Turning into Tatiana," in our March 2009 issue, the ballerina must have "the emotional maturity to make Tatiana's inner conflicts come alive."
Vishneva brings the turmoil of Tatiana's inner life vibrantly alive without ever exaggerating. Her simplest gesture is so true, so connected in mind, body and spirit that we never doubt her deepest feelings. We know what she's thinking, we know why she hesitates. We see her romantic desire in battle against her wiser self. In the last moments her chest is heaving with exhaustion, having banished her real love but knowing she came close to destroying herself, like a moth to a flame.
I think everyone in that audience felt gratitude to Vishneva for giving us a rich experience, brimming with emotion. And she felt gratitude toward Gomes, whom she circled with her arms while lowering herself to the floor in supplication, exactly the way Onegin circles Tatiana in the last act. During the parade of well wishers, the smallest person brought the largest flowers. Irina Kolpakova, revered coach at ABT, handed Vishneva big bright sunflowers. Vishneva bowed down to her, then spontaneously lifted her up.
We will miss the ravishing Vishneva in roles like Tatiana, but she will not disappear from the dance world. She will continue to dance lead roles with the Mariinsky Ballet. In her "10 Minutes With" last fall she talked about her plans to expand her festival CONTEXT, which has brought contemporary dance to Moscow and St. Petersburg. To see this world-class ballerina rehearse in the studio, watch this beautiful video from The New Yorker.