Passion Play

Classic Arts Features   Passion Play
John Percival takes a close look at legendary choreographer John Cranko, whose Onegin runs through September 18 at Houston Ballet.

John Cranko's Onegin is the best narrative work of one of ballet's master story-tellers. Born 1927 in Rustenburg, South Africa, Cranko produced his first creation, a personal interpretation of Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale suite, in Cape Town aged 16. Moving to London on the first available ship after World War Two, he danced and made ballets at Sadler's Wells and Covent Garden for both Royal Ballet companies, was soon named resident choreographer and commissioned also by New York City Ballet, Ballet Rambert, the Paris Opéra and La Scala, Milan. Outstanding among his early ballets were Pineapple Poll, the big hit of the Festival of Britain, and the three-act Prince of the Pagodas, for which Benjamin Britten composed the score.

It was the success of Pagodas that led the Württemberg Theatre, Stuttgart, to invite Cranko in 1961 as its ballet director. Before his accidental early death in 1973 he transformed Stuttgart Ballet into one of the world's leading companies. Part of his success lay in recruiting and maintaining a team of exceptionally fine dancers, chief among them the great dramatic ballerina Marcia Haydée. She created leading roles in many ballets by Cranko, Kenneth MacMillan, Glen Tetley, Jirì Kylián, Hans van Manen, John Neumeier and Maurice Béjart among others. The diversity implied by that list is something that Cranko always encouraged and developed, for Haydée and the company as a whole. Having, for instance, made a star of her as Juliet, and then invented the tragic character of Tatiana for her in Onegin, he went on to reveal a command of comedy (which she had thought beyond her, but he insisted) in The Taming of the Shrew.

The story of Eugene Onegin and his doomed love for Tatiana is one that had long appealed to Cranko - at least since the 1940s when he made the dances for a Sadler's Wells production of Tchaikovsky's opera on that subject. It fitted perfectly with his wish to make highly theatrical ballets about recognizable people, and to please the widest possible public. The opera and the ballet both derive from the verse novel by Russia's great writer, Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), whose varied works have inspired many choreographers from his own time on, among them such successes as The Prisoner of the Caucasus, The Fountain of Bakhchisarai, The Bronze Horseman, Aleko and The Queen of Spades. Before moving to Stuttgart, Cranko had already proposed an Onegin for the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, to star the husband and wife partnership of Ronald Hynd and Annette Page, but the management turned down his idea of having a score adapted from Tchaikovsky's opera. The same objection was raised in Stuttgart when Cranko first suggested Onegin there, but this time he overcame the problem by having less familiar Tchaikovsky music selected and arranged for his purpose by the German composer Kurt-Heinz Stolze.

The ballet was admired from its first performances in 1965, but gained immensely from the revisions which Cranko made on reviving it two years later. He deleted an unhelpful prologue and substantially developed the title role for a new interpreter, Heinz Clauss, recruited from the Hamburg Ballet, who proved a worthy match for Haydée's exceptional qualities.

Adapted by Cranko from Pushkin's original, the libretto shows Tatiana falling in love at first sight with the dandified poet Onegin, in spite of his amused and condescending manner towards her. Rejected by him, and understandably grief-stricken when Onegin kills her sister's fiancé in a duel, Tatiana marries her admirer Prince Gremin. Years later, Onegin meets her again, and now it is his turn to fall in love and hers to reject him, however sadly.

Cranko realized that this story provided vividly dramatic roles for five leading characters, seen against the backdrop of an ensemble that changed in each act: first the peasants who work on the farm of Tatiana's mother, Madame Larina; then the guests at her party; and finally the assembly at Prince Gremin's ball. His handling of the action, however, is surprisingly domestic: even at Madame Larina's party he concentrates on the individuals rather than seizing the opportunities for large-scale dances. And the scenes which end both Act 1 (Tatiana writing her love letter to Onegin) and Act 3 (Onegin's final rejection by Tatiana) never have more than two dancers on stage at once.

Onegin himself, Tatiana's sister Olga and her betrothed Lensky all have fine roles for acting, solo dancing and duets. However, it is for Tatiana, inspired by Haydée's supreme artistry, that Cranko primarily made the ballet, creating a truly tragic character of impassioned depth and rare understanding. Even for that unrivaled dance-actress this was a challenging part, and ballerinas all over the world who have had the honor of succeeding her in it have found the role as demanding as it is rewarding.

John Percival, an international freelance critic, has been watching dance for more than 60 years and writing about it almost as long.

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