In his all too brief life, South African-born choreographer John Cranko (1927-1973) created three magnificent full-length story ballets that have become modern classics. Romeo and Juliet (1962) and The Taming of the Shrew (1969) mirror The Bard's famous plays by being tragically romantic and humorously energetic respectively. Between these Shakespearean bookends is Onegin (1965) based on Pushkin's masterpiece Eugene Onegin. When it comes to the hearts and minds of the most discerning Cranko enthusiasts, Onegin is, for them, the most ravishing and the most compelling.
Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin first began writing his masterpiece verse novel in 1825 while in exile at his family estate in hinterland Russia. He had been expelled from the court in 1820 because he had offended the Tsar with his liberal politics. During his exile, Pushkin met Aleksandr Revsky who was his inspiration for the character of Onegin. Pushkin believed that Revsky embodied everything decadent about Russian aristocracy.
Pushkin (1799-1837) was the first to use vernacular Russian as his language of creation, as well as drawing heavily on Russian history and folklore as themes for his poetry and prose. As such, Pushkin is revered as the founder of modern Russian literature. Whether in mythological extravaganzas such as Russlan and Ludmilla (1820), sweeping historical epics like Boris Godunov (1831), or penetrating depictions of the contemporary society of his day as in Eugene Onegin (1833), Pushkin infused all his narratives with razor-sharp social, political and moral commentary.
In Pushkin's story, the provincial and innocent Tatiana Larina becomes infatuated with the urbane and cynical Eugene Onegin, a friend of the poet Vladimir Lensky, the fianc_ of her younger sister Olga. Tatiana pours out her love for Onegin in a letter, which he returns to the humiliated girl with a patronizing lecture about misguided affections. At Tatiana's name day party, the bored Onegin flirts with Olga, and out of honour, the jealous Lensky challenges his friend to a duel. Onegin kills Lensky, and guilt drives him into exile. Upon returning to St. Petersburg several years later, he discovers that Tatiana has now become an alluring, sophisticated woman married to the much older Prince Gremin. This time it is Onegin who writes the passionate letter, and although Tatiana admits her love for him, she orders Onegin out of her life.
The choreographer first came across Pushkin's epic in 1952 when he was asked to create three dances for a Sadler's Wells production of Tchaikovsky's 1879 opera Eugene Onegin, and over the next decade, as he watched repeated screenings of a Russian film of the opera, the seed for a full-length ballet took root. In 1961, Cranko became artistic director of Stuttgart Ballet for whom he created Onegin. The structure of the ballet closely resembles Tchaikovsky's episodic opera scenario with distinct but connected "lyrical scenes" spanning three acts. Unfortunately, the martinet intendent (or manager) of the Wurttemberg State Theatre, the home of Stuttgart Ballet, would not allow the opera music to be "desecrated" as a score for dance. Kurt-Heinz Stolze was commissioned to create a pastiche from Tchaikovsky's lesser-known orchestral and piano works, and, in fact, the composer did an outstanding job in the difficult task of fashioning a dramatic musical canvas for Cranko's choreography.
It is a well-known fact that story ballets are the most notoriously difficult to create because a choreographer must make his dance vocabulary portray both character and narrative line. In this regard, Cranko was a genius. His story ballets radiate humanity, and this aspect is his greatest glory. His characters are universally recognizable. They are never caricatures but real people. Pushkin gave Cranko the gift of characters of intriguing complexity, and the choreographer responded with movement that speaks as eloquently as words.
Cranko tells the heart of the story through a series of bravura pas de deux. Tatiana's letter becomes a romantic young girl's dream fantasy with a loving Onegin, while the final impassioned duet has Tatiana as the stronger partner, tortured with love for Onegin while tearing herself away from him. The pas de deux for Olga and Lensky is charming and light-hearted, but still conveys Olga's vacuous and flirtatious personality and Lensky's intensity. The duet for Tatiana and Gremin is stately and formal, yet full of warmth‹he, smitten by a young wife, she, loyal and dutiful. Cranko has even included an emotionally charged duet for Tatiana and Olga in the duel scene. In short, Cranko's choreography allows us to touch the very souls of the characters through the luminescent portraits he paints.
As a sad note of irony, Pushkin's early death mirrors Lensky's. Pushkin's wife, Natalia Goncharova, was considered the most beautiful woman in Russia and the most flirtatious. Her dalliance with Baron Georges d'Anthes, the adopted son of the Dutch ambassador, was so flagrant that Pushkin was compelled to act to protect the family name. He was killed in the duel.
In the final analysis, Cranko's Onegin is so powerful because it depicts human nature at its most vulnerable. The genius of Pushkin lives on through Cranko's masterful choreography.