BWW Reviews: John Cranko's ONEGIN at American Ballet Theatre

John Cranko's Onegin was recently presented by American Ballet Theatre. As I expected, the reviews weren't great. It seems Cranko never commands much respect over here. The reviews all describe the work in the same way: empty, boring, sleep-inducing. But I don't agree. Sure, the ballet could be shortened, but aren't there many ballets like that. One thing it does offer: wonderful acting parts for dancers.

Cranko was born in South Africa and began his study of dance there, later moving to London and joining the Sadler's Wells Ballet (which later became the Royal Ballet.). Beginning as a corps dancer, he found his way into choreography. His first ballet, Pineapple Poll, orchestrated by Charles Mackerras (the Sir part came later) to the music of Arthur Sullivan, was a big hit, followed by The Lady and the Fool, Harlequin in April, Pastorale, Beauty and the Beast and The Prince of the Pagodas, the first full-length all-British ballet. For those of you who like history-two of these ballets, Lady and the Fool and Pineapple Poll have just been released on DVD. They are BBC teleVision Productions with David Blair, Svetlana Beriosova, Stanley Holden, and Merle Park. The technology may be primitive, but the performances are definitely not.

Cranko came to Stuttgart in 1961 and quickly turned it into a center of ballet fame. It's the old story: you have to leave your native country to find success elsewhere. In Stuttgart he choreographed the three ballets which have become forever associated with him, Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet and Onegin. He also established a ballet school that offered a complete ballet education in classical dance, recognized with a state diploma, the first in West Germany. He must have been one hell of a good organizer!

So what prompted Cranko to make a ballet of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin? It's a Russian literary masterpiece. In this work Pushkin created two of literature's most famous and tortured souls: Tatiana, the bookish young woman who falls madly in love with Onegin, only to be rebuffed; and Onegin himself, a brooding man who can never commit to anything. He's an eternal wanderer; his road leads nowhere.

The story inspired Tchaikovsky's opera, Eugene Onegin. Although it differs from the book in certain aspects, it is a fairly straightforward depiction of the narrative. Tchaikovsky gave his characters the ability to sing, most notably, and passionately in Tatiana's letter writing scene. In this scene the music releases and exposes every emotional quiver that any of us has ever felt for another human being, though unable to express it.

There are more characters involved: Tatiana's sister, Olga, who's engaged to Onegin's friend, Lensky. Onegin flirts with Olga, which escalates into a duel between Onegin and Lensky, who is killed. And then there are the peasants and the nobility.

What could be more romantic than that? Love, death, duels, passion unrequited, passion spent. So a book, an opera; why not a ballet?

Cranko decided not to use Tchaikovsky's opera score. Instead, he asked Kurt-Heinze Stolze, the ballet kappellmeister, to assemble a score from little known Tchaikovsky pieces. Followng the opera libretto, the ballet premiered on April 13, 1965, with Marcia Haydée as Tatiana and Ray Barra as Onegin. Although it was almost unanimously praised in Europe, there was some initial carping by critics, audience members and other choreographers (notably Balanchine), who did not approve the new scoring, saying it was underwhelming and did not support the action. I think it does. Nevertheless, the ballet became a worldwide success, entering the repertory of over 20 ballet companies around the world.

So how did ABT do? Very well;in fact beautifully. The performances lived up to my expectations, especially with the two dancers in the main leads

Julie Kent as the shy but passionate Tatiana is not only a wonderful dancer, but a moving and expressive actress. There are times in the ballet where the character expresses herself with just a glance or a hand movement. Ms. Kent more than fulfilled this; she bared her soul. Her metamorphosis from shy bookish girl to mature self composed princess was beautifully presented, not only in dance and mime, but in posture, attitude, even the way her shoulders changed from the downward slump in Act I to the polished bearing in Act III. I can only give high praise for Ms. Kent.

Roberto Bolle, the eponymous hero, also turned in a magnificent performance. Onegin is a hard character to act, sing or dance. He is shadowy, he doesn't give a damn about anyone and he starts what amounts to a simple flirtation into a duel. At the end, he is contrite and finds Tatiana again. But Tatiana has now moved on beyond him. No longer the shy retiring bookish girl, she is now married to a prince and a person of wealth and standing. But underneath that façade lies a woman of great passion, without an outlet for her consuming love. She admires her husband, but it's very clear that she does not love him. So when she meets Onegin again, it sets off emotional fireworks. Onegin wants Tatiana to run away with him, but she is now entrenched in her wealthy, but provincial, life.

This is beautifully expressed in the final pas de deux. Onegin lifts Tatiana, as if to hold on to her and never let her go. He has finally made room in his soul for hers. She is now a kindred spirit. But Tatiana, as much as she would like to reciprocate Onegin's feelings, is limp and disconcerted. She wants to know why this did not happen years ago, but the more Onegin pulls her to him; the more she pulls away, rejecting not only him but a way of life that she once imagined could be hers. There's nowhere for Onegin to go but out into the Russian cold.

Danill Simkin as Lensky, and Sarah Lane as Olga, and Roman Zhurbin as Prince Gremin, Tatiana's husband, were all excellent. While they are subsidiary characters, they must also hold the action together with their portrayals. Kudos to each of them.

It would be nice to see some other Cranko ballets. All we ever get to see are his three story ballets. Perhaps some company could revive his shorter ballets so that we could really make a final judgment on his choreographic output, without always referring to Onegin or Romeo or Juliet. Until then, it's going to be difficult.

Photograph: Gene Schiavone

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From This Author Barnett Serchuk

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