It takes more than a good story to make a narrative ballet work. The great choreographers of the 20th century explored novel ways to develop plots and convey emotions, moving away from the linear structures characteristic of 19th century classics (think Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty) in favour of more realistic works. With Onegin Cranko set out to do just that. Seeking an effective way to translate the dramatic climaxes from Pushkin’s verse-novel into dance he made use of Pas de Deux to develop relationships between the characters. He also paid great attention to plot cohesion and dramatic timing.
For all its innovative elements, however, Onegin is not a work that radically breaks with academic convention. Cranko may not use obvious 19th century elements like divertissements but here and there he observes traditional dance patterns – as in group dances with pretty girls posing still on the sides. And some of his choreographic leitmotifs – such as when Onegin raises a hand to the head to symbolise his proud persona – can look gimmicky if overemphasised by a non-subtle performer. In other words, Cranko’s choreography requires top performers who combine technical skills with dramatic sensibility to shine its brightest.
Luckily for us, a stellar cast opened the current Royal Ballet revival, with Johan Kobborg and Alina Cojocaru in the central roles of Onegin and Tatiana. Their partnership shows how thrilling and gut-wrenching this ballet can be. They know their roles inside out and have the audience on their side at every step. Dancing to impress Onegin, Alina tones down her razor-sharp technique to convey the character’s sadness and insecurity. We root for Tatiana, who in the sweeping mirror Pas de Deux scene, dreams of a passionate Onegin. Our hearts break with hers when she is brutally dismissed by the self-centered Onegin and we get a full sense of her duty and love for the gentle Prince Gremin (the elegant Bennet Gartside). But when it’s Johan’s turn in the final, very intense Pas de Deux, to cling to Tatiana and communicate Onegin’s regrets, we can also relate to his character’s search for redemption.
Opening night also featured confident debuts by Steven McRae as Lensky and high-flyer Akane Takada as Olga perfectly rounding off the story’s emotional journeys; Lensky’s pre-duel solo was filled with romantic anguish and Takada’s soft arms and youthful grin had a natural home in Olga’s flirty character. Evenings like this prove just how much Cranko’s work depends on the credible interactions between the four leads and their ability to create real emotions onstage.