The Australian Ballet Dances John Cranko’s ‘Onegin’

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John Cranko. Photo by Hannes Kilian.

John Cranko. Photo by Hannes Kilian.

Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House: 4 May, 2012
Onegin continues in Sydney until 21 May, playing in Melbourne from 23 June to 4 July

Choreography – John Cranko
Music – Kurt-Heinz Stolze after Tchaikovsky
Set and costume design – Jürgen Rose
Lighting design – Francis Croese

Tatiana – Miwako Kubota
Onegin – Kevin Jackson
Olga – Reiko Hombo
Lensky – Daniel Gaudiello
Prince Gremin – Ben Davis
Madame Lerina – Katie Pianoff
Nurse – Olga Tamara

Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra
Conductor – Paul Murphy

When John Cranko came to England from South Africa in 1946 at the age of 19 to learn at the Sadler’s Wells School, Ninette de Valois recognized and watered his talent, putting him to work the same year creating ballets for her Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet. She gave him opportunities and encouraged him to create at a time when she herself, though an excellent and very thoughtful choreographer in either a modern or the traditional styles, found herself with less and less time while seeing to her companies, schools and dancers and artists. De Valois made him resident choreographer of the company for the 1950 season. Cranko’s earlier work seems to show his comedic bent, e.g. Pineapple Pole (1950), and in his collaboration with Benjamin Britten in Prince of the Pagodas (1957), though by 1958 showed his full dramatic sense in creating his own version of Romeo and Juliet for Milan, which is now in many companies’ repertoires. In 1960, he left England to direct and choreograph the Württemberger Staatstheaterballett in Stuttgart, though only 33 years old, after remounting Prince of the Pagodas. His dramatic sense and keenly observed characterization, his talent for telling a story led him on to ‘adapt’ to, perhaps more to metamorphose into ballet, the literary giants, finding inspiration in unexpected places: Pushkin-Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin (Onegin, 1965) and Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (1969). He in his turn discovered new talent and gave them room and opportunity to grow. He chose the then unknown Marcia Haydée as his Prima Ballerina despite conservative company directors and gathered many other fine dancers from around the globe. He invited other choreographers too, Kenneth MacMillan, who had been a peer at the Sadler’s Wells school and company, and for whom he choreographed some small ballets at the theatre at Henley-on-Thames in 1952, to create Song of the Earth (with Mahler’s music) in 1965 and young John Neumeier and Jiří Kylián. He hired Glen Tetley as resident choreographer in 1972 (whose Gemini the Australian Ballet will dance later this year), the year before he died much too young of a heart attack.

Marcia Haydée was something of a muse, she stayed with the company her whole career, becoming its director in 1976 after Tetley left, serving in that role until 1996. She created the role of Tatiana and has said that in all her major roles, Cranko left her much room for interpretation, rather letting her discover for herself what drove and motivated the character, so that ‘she danced the movements as if they came from deeper than herself, rather than merely because the choreographer told her to make that movement.’1 It would seem to be very important to the natural psychology of the characters and the high drama of these ballets at which Cranko excelled, for the choreographer to leave undetermined certain movements for the dancers, or at least leave a certain amount of space in the choreography. His choreography looks quite simple, even spare, and I mean that in the most complimentary way. Perhaps that is the success of his seemingly impossible “adaptions” of these dramas in words.

The ballet is not really an adaption of the opera or the verse novel and it is not quite like getting a fourth Tchaikovsky ballet, as tangible his presence is, the music is not really the unified whole of Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty or Nutcracker. It is, despite the romantic flavor of story and music, very much a ballet of the 20th century; there are no fantastic beasts or spirits or fairy realms or magic per se, but the fantasy of strong feeling and vivid imaginations in the realm of human psyches, which can work in ballet too. The ballet does not use the opera’s music, like some other ballets inspired by operas, because that music is so perfect in itself as sung music, it is very verbal music and depends so much on human voices and (Russian) words, and I imagine the opera would resist translation even more strongly than most. Instead Kurt-Heinz Stolze, who collaborated in a similar way with Cranko on other ballets (for example, starting with themes from Domenico Scarlatti’s music to compose for Cranko’s Taming of the Shrew), has taken themes from various Tchaikovsky pieces and orchestrated and pieced them together to create a very lush and quite varied, but also rather strange symphonic animal, more ‘neo-romantic’ than late romantic.

The narrative in Cranko’s Onegin is quite straight and very clear, and as the opera is quite verbal with only very short and sudden pricks of action, built up from extended conversation and gesture among the characters, most of the action in the ballet is within the characters, except for the shocking fight and escalation, and the murder of Lensky. This gives much room for the expression of the choreography and the dancers’ characterizations and interpretations. The dancers tell the tale with great clarity and momentum and near-perfect timing while giving attention to the characters’ psychologies and their ambiguous emotions through subtlety of movement. Astonishingly this was Miwako Kubota’s and Kevin Jackson’s debuts in the main roles. Kubota gave the young romanesque heroine definite youthfulness, but also a certain cerebral breadth and curiosity. Her light step flicks her across the stage, and she shows very little effort, not to say that her Tatiana seemed particularly flighty or mercurial because she was not at all, but more a person of nature, moving in the rhythms of the leaves and the breezes and the birds, carrying only the mass of a human mind. Next to the extremely light and quick Reiko Hombo, Tatiana seemed the older sister, and Hombo’s is a very expressive variety of quickness. Kubota’s thoughtful, precise technique complimented this characterization so very nicely, particularly on a chain of subtly linked up steps which end unexpectedly in a quick turn of the head. The cast seemed to have a definite idea for their interpretation of the ballet as a whole and were taking care to bring it across, growing more confidant from the duel in Act II Scene 2; they will no doubt only grow in confidence and perfect their expression of the story as the run continues (indeed someone who saw the same cast again the following Wednesday found this to be the case).

In a gentle autumnal setting outside a country house, Tatiana and Olga and family open the ballet with their preparations for Tatiana’s birthday party, who is more interested in her book than the dresses they sew. She takes more to the thrilling but not too show-offy Russian peasant dancing, not the Three Ivans or the whirling dervishes of  Petrouchka, which wouldn’t have worked in the simple country scenes at all, but here we have the carefree dancing of men, then women, then men and women together. Their costumes are a slightly faded yellow, very long skirts with a few light layers to them. They make patterns dancing in and out of each other in lines, while the women alone dance in the round, winding in on themselves spirally. The corps de ballet had a free rein, a set-lose quality here which worked very well, contrasting with the family and sisterly scenes strongly while not seeming like abrupt divertissements. To close their scene, the corps flew diagonally across the stage in a line with the women leaping grands jetés with the men running alongside, in one long, smooth, seemingly continuous snaking line as they left by the wings and came back out to cross the other diagonal.

Lensky enters as the poet returning to his element, immediately absorbed into the scene of the carefree dancing, the yellowing and browning birch trees and nature, Daniel Gaudiello very naturally exuding this euphoria. Tatiana dances alone after the town’s folk, and Olga and Lensky dance together, sharing a certain feeling of outdoors euphoria, familiarity and love and fresh air and poetry all mixed together. Onegin comes in dragging and drifting and floating as if he weren’t even touching the soil and were excised from the scene, wearing his black coat and tails, deliberately and pointedly choosing to ignore the people around him, going a bit farther than manners would allow. Kevin Jackson is very cool, even chilling at times, in these scenes, but magnetic in a way as he moves at half tempo from everyone else, like a black hole in the otherwise ideal scene, he draws one in with his weighty ennui, so one can begin to sympathize in that way why the curious Tatiana is drawn in and follows him. When he dances, he reaches out with languid fingers finishing the line of his port à bras, somehow he is stony and languid at the same time.

For the famous Letter Scene, Cranko creates not a letter scene at all, but an extended fantasy pas de deux. Tatiana’s bedroom has magnified lace hanging from the proscenium, and a bluish tinge to the whole room. She finishes her letter to Onegin quite quickly in the opening of the scene. After her nurse leaves her, the sleepless Tatiana gets out of bed to look in the full-length mirror on the back wall. First she sees her own reflection, but looking again, Onegin appears looming in the mirror. He steps out, a warmer fantasy Onegin. He has the recognizable smoothness, but he is more human, as if she has saved him from his ennui. Their dance becomes more intimate as it becomes more intricate and even somewhat precarious, giddy and passionate in a turned-in emotional way more than the fresh air giddiness of Lensky and Olga’s earlier.

In Act II, at the birthday party, Onegin ‘lightens up’ just a tad, but only enough for his cruel mischief. He is more interested in playing solitaire than dancing or socializing, except for a minimal courtesy to his host. The room with its tromp d’oeuil set painting and pale, almost washed-out colors, seems airy and light. The corps de ballet dances a little more formally now in their long dresses in pinks and yellows, breaking up into little witty encounters: Lensky with Olga and Tatiana’s parents, Onegin is introduced to the parents, nameless party guests, offering little opportunities at the front of the stage for acting, giving the impression of constant and layered activity with remarkably concise individual choreography and direction. Olga and Lensky dance without reserve (they bump into her father) while Onegin dances stiffly and briefly with Tatiana. He never takes her letter seriously when she gives it to him, treating it as a sort of silly game, just another card in his deck, at most entertained by it, giving it back to her almost immediately, then impatiently taking her hands and thrusting the torn up pieces into them when she declines to take it back. He walks off to leave her in the middle of the room, another party guest coming by leads her away after picking up the pieces of letter. When he returns, he tries to grab Olga’s attention with his card tricks, which she politely plays along with while Lensky remains entirely uninterested, pining for the dance floor. When they walk off, Onegin slickly cuts in and dances with Olga, dancing more carelessly now but for his own amusement, Olga still polite. Somehow the company uses the narrow stage to advantage, making all the dancers seem larger than life, they all, especially the main characters, seem to stand out very solidly. Lensky, after Onegin takes too many liberties, calls him out, slapping Onegin shortly with his glove and casting it to the floor. Onegin leaves it as he tries to back out of his joke, but starts to argue, the two sisters try to intervene, but Onegin’s temper rises and he picks up the glove.

The duel takes place in a clearing in the woods  in a cold, dewy, pre-dawn. After the powerful ripping trombones of the orchestral opening, Lensky enters alone, to dance an extremely poetic and poignant solo with a very expressive viola. He kneels  despairingly, slowly keeling backwards, very anguished, unreserved, even melodramatic (in the least pejorative sense of the word), but in no way over the top. Onegin drifts on in a capacious, conical black cloak which sweeps the floor. The sisters in their long dresses now hooded so their hair is covered sweep on and plead with Lensky, clinging to him desperately. He pulls away and they run back to him and he pulls away again. They plead with Onegin even, but he is stony. The duel is over very quickly and simply, the men at either end of the stage in the back behind a mesh screen which darkens and blurs their shapes slightly. After Onegin kills Lensky, he returns to the front of the stage, and just sort of breaks down, crumpling, his head in his hands, not even dropping to the floor, then the curtain falls.

Act III opens with the ball in St Petersburg several years later. The curtain rises on a sparkling scene with the corps de ballet arrayed, ready to take a first step, wearing gowns and jewels in their hair buns (which jingle a little when they hop), and tails or officer’s uniforms, the colors slightly muted still, but more colorful, spreading over the reds and blues of the spectrum now, the group activity of the ball is more organized, the dance more stately. Prince Gremin is now Tatiana’s husband and they dance together after the rest. Tatiana is more mature, not that she was immature before, as she dances a warm, tender, reciprocal pas de deux now, deeply expressive of their lasting sort of consistent, gently simmering love. It is a little less complicated in the lifts and push and pull of the interactions than the fantasy pas de deux with Onegin, but it takes its own time more in developing with more slow movements, cradling gestures. But Onegin appears like a bad vision, haggard, with slightly graying hair, shaken to see Tatiana. In the scene in the bedroom which follows the pensive, disturbed Tatiana holds a letter from Onegin. At first she doesn’t seem to know how to talk to her husband, who now enters, but their mime of the scene is so natural and simple but so expressive that it doesn’t even seem like mime at all. Perhaps the music assists somewhat too, but Miwako Kubota’s and Ben Davis’ understated gestures are just right and very articulate as she gradually falls into his arms. Comforted, but not settled in her feelings, Onegin himself appears at the doorway. His importunate dancing and her recoiling insensibly become a pas de deux, seemingly quite reckless after the one with Prince Gremin, with difficult, precarious lifts (though danced, of course, with steady balance). Somehow Tatiana never seems quite to lose herself, but it’s close, as she feels several strong opposite feelings at once. It is more as if she were a naturally very generous and loving spirit, which makes sense with her sensitive romanesque qualities from earlier acts, but eventually, exhausted, she draws herself away from Onegin. He becomes more grabbing, desperate, clutching at her middle rather animal-like, having lost his original cool completely, but he is never really brutal. Eventually she tears up his letter and turns him out, very firmly, but trembling too. The ballet ends with Tatiana alone in the center of the stage, sobbing.

The music supported the dancers, with a strong punching rhythm for the country social dance scenes, not very heavy, but borderline. There was an odd balance of the harp and flute melodies to the strings which didn’t help the clarity of the music in that theatre. From the stalls, one can see a couple of microphones in the orchestra pit, so it would be a shame if the Opera House feel they must resort to artificial amplification of parts of the orchestra. It goes without saying that they are very fine musicians in the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra worthy of playing on their own in concert, and they deserve a much better pit. They also deserve more respect than the loud talking near me during the overture and orchestral interludes and beginnings of some the dances. Paul Murphy’s conducting painted the strong emotions of the scenes, sounding full at those climaxes, but with those strongly beaten social dances his dynamic range seemed restricted to the louder end, with the quieter parts never very soft, as if he didn’t leave enough room for a gradual crescendo, though the music did always have a solid presence. But he tended to err on the side of giving the dancers their pace and time and really to produce any listenable music in that terribly awkward orchestra pit is a miracle.

1 Opéra National de Paris. La Mégère Apprivoisée. Interview with Andrea Gern.

About the author

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller lives in Sydney and writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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