Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg (Photo: Dee Conway)
Alina Cojocaru, Johan Kobborg, Steven McRae, Akane Takada, Bennet Gartside, Genesia Rosato, Francesca Filpi
Like the opera Eugene Onegin, the ballet Onegin is based on Pushkin’s verse-novel and uses Tchaikovsky’s music.|
But while the opera was written by Tchaikovsky to be exactly that, the ballet did not emerge until 1965. It was choreographed by John Cranko, with Kurt-Heinz Stolze arranging music by the composer to create the score.
He used music from Tchaikovsky’s piano concertos and operas, and from various waltzes, mazurkas and polonaises - almost everything, in fact, except his Eugene Onegin!
If Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker all reveal Tchaikovsky’s peerless ability to compose music that works for dancing, Onegin, especially when conducted as it is here by Valeriy Ovsyanikov, reveals just how much of his overall output feels naturally suited to the ballet step.
The story witnesses the young Tatiana’s infatuation with a guest from St Petersburg, Onegin, when he graces her village. When he does not reciprocate her love and starts flirting with her sister Olga, a duel ensues in which Onegin kills Olga’s betrothed, Lensky. The ballet requires the differing personalities of the four main characters to be defined very clearly through both their dancing and expression, and it is a challenge to which the four principals rise supremely.
The first scene, which sees the Larina family making preparations for Tatiana’s birthday, clearly reveals the two sisters’ differing characters. As Olga, Akane Takada’s expressions see her filled to the brim with girlish glee, gazing in the mirror and generally getting more excited than the birthday girl herself. In direct contrast, Alina Cojocaru’s Tatiana hardly dances a step as she lies reading her book, lost in wonder and thought.
When Lensky (Steven McRae) appears, he dances a pas de deux with Olga in which their mutual devotion and carefree excitement come to the fore. Their rapport is particularly notable in the way in which Olga is lifted. Takada appears almost to float into McRae’s arms, each limb being displayed at a wondrous angle, and everything about the turn exudes warmth.
The contrast between this and Tatiana and Onegin’s subsequent pas de deux could not be more marked. With clean, sharp turns Johan Kobborg brilliantly defines Onegin as proud and withdrawn, but Tatiana’s infatuation, not to mention Cojocaru’s elegance, combine with his straightness of poise to make this duet equally captivating. It does not elicit the same obvious warmth because the love remains one-sided, but there is still a hint that, in the moment, Onegin does start to melt, even though he emphatically rejects Tatiana afterwards.
In the second scene, Tatiana dances with Onegin in a dream sequence in which he is hers, thus enabling this pas de deux to take on yet another dimension. Particularly stunning is the way in which Cojocaru repeatedly leaps into Kobborg’s arms to be spun round high and placed back on the ground in the blink of an eye.
Throughout, the corps de ballet provide strong support. As village folk in Act One their dancing can be graceful and elegant, or rough and rugged. In Act Two, dressed as young and old alike, they imbue each guest at the ball with a specific character. The set designs of Jürgen Rose, after the original 1969 designs for the Stuttgart Ballet, are also exquisite. Though essentially consisting of a series of flat boards with designs painted on, the way in which the curtains are constructed make them appear richly textured and three-dimensional.
As Onegin flirts with Olga, and in the run-up to the duel, the air between Kobborg and McRae thickens as they stare each other in the face, while Cojocaru and Takada resort to a flurry of passionate pleading in a desire to halt the madness.
In Act Three, having killed his friend, Kobborg’s Onegin stands under subdued lighting, a shadow of his former self. As he dances his final pas de deux with Tatiana, however, the incredible way in which they lose themselves in each other made me genuinely uncertain as to which way this encounter would end, even though I already knew! But this was only symbolic of a performance that, due to the quality of expression and dancing, feels full of surprises from start to finish.