John Cranko created Onegin for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1965 based on Pushkin’s literary novel in verse, Eugene Onegin. He revised the ballet over the next two years, and the 1967 version is now performed worldwide. It entered the Bolshoi Ballet's repertoire in July 2013.

Some purists may quibble about liberties taken with the ballet’s characters, plot and historical accuracy; others with the score, which comprises solo piano and orchestral pieces from several Tchaikovsky compositions (masterfully arranged and orchestrated by the composer, Kurt-Heinz Stolze). However, as one of  few 20th century three-act classical ballets with believable characters and an engaging narrative, it has proved very popular with audiences.

Olga Smirnova (Tatiana) and Vladislav Lantratov (Onegin) © Damir Yusupov | Bolshoi Theatre
Olga Smirnova (Tatiana) and Vladislav Lantratov (Onegin)
© Damir Yusupov | Bolshoi Theatre

Another reason for the ballet’s popularity is the perfect attunement of choreography and score – expressing character, relationship, and events in a continuous flow, with leitmotifs tying the story together. Group dances alternate with the character’s solo moments and inventive pas de deux.

The story revolves around four characters. Lensky – an idealistic and romantic young man who brings his vain and bored friend from St. Petersburg – Onegin – to meet his fiancée Olga and her older sister, Tatiana. The latter is introverted, whereas Olga is outgoing; Tatiana more interested in reading romantic novels than joining in the day’s activities. Onegin’s appearance jolts her into the present:  She sees him as a real life romantic hero with whom she falls deeply in love. That night, after a passionate dream of Onegin, she writes a love letter and sends it to him.

In the second Act, Onegin is irritated by Tatiana’s naivety about love and having to deal with her letter, which he attempts to return. When she demurs, he cruelly tears it up and drops the pieces in her hands. To alleviate his annoyance and boredom he decides to flirt with Olga. The passionate Lensky takes grave offense and challenges him to a duel. Despite the sisters’ attempts to convince Lensky to relent, he persists and is killed by Onegin.

Years later, a disillusioned Onegin arrives at a St. Petersburg ball and is stunned to see a beautiful, elegant and mature Tatiana, now married to Prince Gremin. Realizing the quality of the woman he rejected in his youth, he writes to her of his love and regrets, and visits her to implore that she accept him as her lover. Tatiana, in a turmoil at the return of long repressed passion, resists him but momentarily gives way until rationality regarding her societal position and marital status prevail. In anguish, she tears up his letter and orders him to leave her forever. 

While the ballet’s eponymous character plays a central role, it is Tatiana who anchors the ballet. The role – created for the great dramatic ballerina Marcia Haydee – requires the ability to portray both a naïve girl and an experienced woman, and to convey a wide range of emotions and great depth of feeling. Olga Smirnova as Tatiana did not fully meet these requirements. She danced as beautifully  as always but portrayed Tatiana in her characteristically subdued manner, an approach that simply does not work in this ballet. She failed to convey the enormous psychological transitions from the first to the third act, her facial expressions barely registering the emotional changes from one scene to the next. She often appears to be assuming a pose that she thinks will indicate an emotion rather than actually feeling and expressing it. In the final pas de deux (with Onegin), she did not express the agony of feeling an intense physical desire and emotional longing that she knows can never be fulfilled. 

In contrast, Vladislav Lantratov played Onegin with considerable nuance and intensity. For some interpreters, Onegin’s vanity and arrogance overpower his elegant and restrained charm. But Lantratov melds the character’s complexities into a believable whole, expressing irresponsible pleasure while flirting with Olga, stunned dismay when Lensky challenges him to a duel, cold fury when he refuses his entreaties to relent, and desperate passion for Tatiana when he meets her years later.

Semyon Chudin played the romantic and reckless Lensky with a clear understanding of how naïve youthful love can convert in an instant to jealous outrage. Even after his beautifully danced solo expressing despair and resignation, he angrily resists Onegin’s entreaties to withdraw. Anastasia Staskevich’s Olga was not only mischievous and naïve, she was immature and totally oblivious of the effect of her flirtation on Lensky. Her reaction to the disastrous outcome conveyed as much confusion as despair. Stashkevich is a lovely lyrical dancer and her pas de deux with Chudin were exquisitely danced. Vitaly Biktimirov as Prince Gremin, Tatiana’s husband, combined aristocratic formality with the expression of great affection for his wife, which intensified Tatiana’s emotional dilemma when confronted with Onegin’s passion.

The corps de ballet danced with charm and energy in the country scenes and elegance in the ballroom, as conductor Pavel Sorokin lead the dramatic score with sensitivity.