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Boris Eifman Brings "Onegin" to Zellerbach

If modern dance feels too abstract and classical ballet too outdated, the popular Russian choreographer Boris Eifman has got what you need – a rare combination of passionate story-telling with modern dance moves and exciting sets.

Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg, which became famous in the late 1970s by breaking thru the stagnant Soviet art limitations, comes to UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall every couple of years and is not to be missed. This weekend’s Cal Performances West Coast premiere of “Onegin” is based on Russian poet Alexander Pushkin’s 1830s classic verse novel about a high-society dandy who moves to the country, where he kills his friend in a duel and rejects a young woman who loves him only to be rejected by her years later.

Eifman, who recently staged Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” and Chekhov’s “Seagull,” loves stories that explore the meaning of the Russian soul and encapsulate an individual’s struggle with society. His duets are full of passionate, even sexual energy. And, endowed with perfectionist classical Russian training, his corps de ballet often forms a dynamic swell that captures and torments the main characters.

But if that wasn’t enough, in “Onegin,” set to Tchaikovsky’s opera “Yevgeny Onegin” and to rock compositions by Alexander Sitkovetsky, the choreographer evidently wanted to add some fuel to the flames. He transported Pushkin’s characters to the post-Soviet Russia of the early 1990s, a turbulent time when people’s sense of newfound freedom quickly turned into ugly lawlessness.

Whether or not the daring time-machine experiment works, Eifman’s unique choreography and stunning dancers (his troupe is known as one of the tallest in the world) are always exciting to watch. And if “Onegin” wasn’t on your reading list, don’t dismay – Eifman’s choreography is not known for its subtleties and innuendos.