When George Balanchine saw Stuttgart Ballet in John Cranko’s Onegin, he reportedly hated it. “How can one do something like that to Pushkin, Tchaikovsky, Onegin,” he queried, adding, “… and no one is put in jail?” Woe betide anyone who would suggest the great Balanchine might have been wrong, but he objected to how he felt Cranko had theatricalised and trivialised Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, a beloved classic of Russian literature, by transforming it into a three-act ballet. Even today, some turn their noses up at Onegin, despite the fact that since its first performance in 1965, the ballet has become a firm favourite.
Danced to Kurt-Heinz Stolze’s arrangement of piano pieces and orchestral music composed by Tchaikovsky, Cranko created a dramatic story ballet set against the milieu of Russian society in the early 19th century that offers four meaty roles for the leading dancers to interpret. Above all, it is the character of Tatiana, with her changes of moods and emotions, that ballerinas jostle to portray. When I first saw Onegin, danced by London Festival Ballet during the 1980s, I was lucky to have seen artists of the calibre of Marcia Haydée (the original Tatiana), Natalia Makarova, Lynn Seymour and Eva Evdokimova perform the role. They made a deep and lasting impression and the dancers of the current generation seek to make the same impact.
Today, Onegin is danced by companies around the world and has just returned to the repertoire of the Czech National Ballet in Prague. Performed at the gorgeous National Theatre, Cranko’s choreographic text has been scrupulously staged by artistic director Filip Barankiewicz (a former Stuttgart dancer) and Jane Bourne, along with artistic supervision from Reid Anderson. The credentials for the production, therefore, are excellent and the company brought off a fine first-night account on 9th February, but the surprise was the set and costume designs by Elisabeth Dalton, used in place of the originals by Jürgen Rose.
Like Rose, Dalton sets the ballet in the early years of the 19th century and she also utilises painted backcloths and wings to set the scene. But whereas Rose’s designs are light and delicately painted, Dalton’s are heavier and muddier in colour and tone. Dalton’s costumes, too, are similar to Rose’s, but without his flair for cut and colour. In addition, the National Theatre has quite a narrow stage and whilst in these settings the choreography of the first two acts fitted the space well, Prince Gremin’s grand ball at the start of Act III looked congested.
Still, this unfamiliar setting did not diminish the power of the performances by the four leading dancers. In the title role, Patrik Holeček was tall and elegant, yet cold, aloof, arrogant and diffident. It was hard to sympathise with him and yet I marvelled at how his body etched out the long lines of Cranko’s choreography like a great black eagle, his far-reaching jumps taking wing and his elongated limbs stretching out into space. Onegin’s self-obsession made it difficult to understand why Tatiana falls for him, but Alina Nanu found an answer by making her a girlish, nervous adolescent and the “dream” pas de deux with Onegin at the end of Act I a naïve, rapturous fantasy about a man she does not know. Dancing this duet, Nanu and Holeček abandoned themselves totally to the emotion of the choreography, with its acrobatic lifts. Later, when Onegin humiliates Tatiana at her birthday party, Nanu expressed the splintering of her confused emotions with poignancy. Here was delicate, sincere, affecting dancing from a fine ballerina.
The pair were at their best in the final act, when a now mature Onegin realises what he has lost when he sees Tatiana dancing with her husband, Prince Gremin, at a ball. Remembering her humiliation, Tatiana gathers all her strength to reject Onegin’s declaration of love and Nanu and Holeček turned their final pas de deux into a searing, agitated, tempestuous battle of wills. It was a tremendous end to the performance.
Ayaka Fujii brought vivacious brilliance to the role of Olga, Tatiana’s foolish sister and the tousle-haired Federico Ievoli was a beautifully sensitive, good-natured Lensky, his romantic ardour for Olga charming. I also liked the way Ievoli expressed at first his disbelief at the way his friend Onegin treats him at Tatiana’s party, deliberately and shamelessly flirting with Olga and then his growing anger until he finally explodes into challenging him to a duel. His solo in the moonlight before his death was a subtle dance of heartbreak. There was excellent orchestral playing too, under the baton of conductor Václav Zahradník.
Finally, a word of admiration for the performance of Marek Svobodnik as Prince Gremin, a character often blandly performed, but presented here as a handsome, tender man passionately in love with his wife. If I were Tatiana, I would have chosen Gremin over Onegin every time.
Jonathan's press trip to Prague was funded by Czech National BalletÜber unsere Stern-Bewertung