Program Notes

Love and friendship, honor and betrayal. The central dynamics of human relationships, they are also the linchpins of drama—and the foundation of John Cranko’s masterful Onegin. Based on mature themes rather than fairy tales or fantasy, Onegin is a ballet for adults, a visual feast of rich, emotional choreography, powerful storytelling, and stunning imagery. And with a story by poet Alexander Pushkin, set to music by the incomparable Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, it’s Russian to its core.

The ballet, like the 1879 Tchaikovsky opera that preceded it, is based on Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin. Cranko had staged dances for the opera when it was performed at London’s Covent Garden, and he pitched the idea for a ballet version to Sadler’s Wells Ballet, where he was working at the time. Sadler’s Wells said no, but Cranko found a receptive home for his ballet at Stuttgart Ballet, where he became artistic director.

Born in South Africa in 1927, Cranko made his first ballet in 1946, while studying at Cape Town University Ballet School. That same year he left for London to study at the Sadler’s Wells school, later joining the company. After retiring from dancing at 23, he began choreographing extensively, for Sadler’s Wells (and its later incarnation, The Royal Ballet), Ballet Rambert, Paris Opéra Ballet, and New York City Ballet. In 1961 he became director of Stuttgart Ballet and turned it into the world-renowned company it is today. He died at the young age of 45 while on a transatlantic flight to Stuttgart, but left a pronounced mark on the ballet world as a nuanced storyteller and gifted, musical choreographer. Among his dozens of works are three widely performed full-lengths—Romeo and Juliet (1958), The Taming of the Shrew (1969), and Onegin.

Onegin

Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz in Cranko's Onegin (© Erik Tomasson)

Cranko created Onegin in 1965 for Stuttgart Ballet (with Marcia Haydée as Tatiana and Ray Barra as Onegin in the April 13 premiere), revising it in 1967 (with Heinz Clauss in the title role). It was first seen in the United States in 1969, when the Stuttgart performed it at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. Although Onegin has been performed by more than 20 companies in Europe, Asia, and North America, U.S. ballet companies were slow to acquire it; the first was Boston Ballet, in 1994.

Instead of using the opera music, Cranko enlisted German conductor Kurt-Heinz Stolze to arrange and orchestrate a score comprised of various piano and orchestral pieces by Tchaikovsky. Along with selections from five piano solo collections (many from The Seasons, Op. 37a), Stolze used portions of the opera Cherevichki (as a recurring theme for Tatiana and Onegin), the symphonic fantasy Francesca da Rimini, the symphonic ballad The Voyevoda, the overture-fantasy Romeo and Juliet, and an impromptu. The result is a cohesive score that sounds as if it could have been written from scratch for Onegin. In unfailing Tchaikovsky style, his music conveys all the depth and emotional power needed for a ballet that brings audiences to tears.

Onegin had been on San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson’s wish list for quite a while. “It’s one of those dramatic story ballets that are very good for the Company members to experience and be challenged by, especially some who have been with me for a while,” he says. “The Sleeping Beauty is a fairy tale. Romeo & Juliet is not; it’s a drama. It could be anytime, anywhere, and we have the same situation with Onegin. It’s a human drama.” Offering his dancers plenty of stylistic range is important to Tomasson. “Don Quixote is up and light and fun, pure show-off dancing. This is different,” he explains. “It’s a contrast, and I like that.”

Tomasson also likes the fact that Onegin is “gorgeous,” an adjective he applies to both the music and the designs by Santo Loquasto, commissioned by the National Ballet of Canada in 2010 when the original sets and costumes by Jürgen Rose had become too fragile to use. Sumptuous interiors alternate with outdoor scenes populated with silver birches, so evocative of Russia.

Bringing Onegin into SF Ballet’s repertory has been a major undertaking involving Tomasson, longtime Cranko ballet stager Jane Bourne, five ballet masters, and more than three-quarters of the Company’s dancers, plus apprentices and students. Bourne has been staging Cranko’s ballets since 1975, after studying Benesh Movement Notation (a system of documenting dance steps and staging on paper) at London’s Benesh Institute of Choreology (now the Benesh Institute). Since her early days of assisting Georgette Tsinguirides, then the choreologist at Stuttgart, Bourne has staged Onegin roughly 25 times in 35 years. “I still get excited by it,” she says. “It has everything—tragedy and drama, some small comedic episodes in the second act, deep character portrayals. But it’s heavy on the drama.”

It’s also heavy on choreography, including a series of pas de deux and robust ensemble dances that fill the stage with traditional Russian steps, polonaises, and courtly promenades. Compared to many full-length ballets, Onegin has less stage business and more full-out dancing. “Cranko tells the story with movement— that’s his talent,” says Bourne. “There’s very, very little classical mime.” Referring to a scene where Tatiana writes a letter and then dances with Onegin, Bourne says, “She dreams the pas de deux, because how else are you going to show what’s in the letter? This is, I think, just clever.”

For the dancers, Onegin holds the richness of deep emotion conveyed as much through the choreography as through the drama. Principal Dancer Yuan Yuan Tan, who was the first foreign student to receive a full scholarship to the John Cranko School, calls Tatiana “a dream role for me, since I was young.” At 17, while in the school, “I saw Marcia Haydée in a clip of Onegin, and thought, ‘Oh my God, what is this?’ ” Tan says. “In China I never experienced seeing dramatic roles, because at that time we were still very isolated. I remember that last scene, as the curtain comes down. It brought me to tears.”

With such meaty, mature subject matter and choreography that makes great demands in terms of technique and musicality, Onegin requires experience, in both ballet and life, from its leads. “This is my first Cranko ballet, and it is quite difficult,” Tan says. “But I have the benefit from all these years of work with well-known choreographers; their pas de deux are not easy either. So I have been practiced and maybe trained to take all the difficult pas de deux to a certain level.”

Principal Dancer Pierre-François Vilanoba, who dances Onegin, agrees that experience is a plus. “The partnering is quite difficult and challenging,” he says about the pas de deux for Tatiana and Onegin, which are packed with complicated lifts. “It took me some time to understand how it works. It requires complete coordination between the partners. It has to be really exact in some ways, in the intent at least.”

In preparing to dance Onegin, Vilanoba read Pushkin’s book, integrating the deeper understanding he gained from it into his own interpretation of the character. As he strives to meld physicality and personality, musicality and motivation, Vilanoba is discovering “what I can imply, add to the character.” He sees Onegin as a man who is struggling to find meaning in life. “I understand why, for this role, you have to be more mature. He’s seeking something with more depth and not finding it. And for me that’s good. I have evolved in this company, so I have been younger and superficial. And you learn there is more depth to be discovered. So I can really identify with Onegin.”

Principal Dancer Vitor Luiz, who danced both Lensky and Onegin with Ballet do Theatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro under the direction of former Stuttgart dancer Richard Cragun, has seen firsthand the importance of bringing maturity to the role of Onegin. In Brazil he danced Lensky first, and he says, “It was good not to have me do Onegin right away, because the more you grow as an artist, the more you have to put into the character. You learn the experience of life and then you can bring that experience to your shows.” In working with Cragun and Marcia Haydée, Luiz says, he “learned a great deal. It was great because they worked so much with Cranko.”

Like Vilanoba, Luiz researched the character of Onegin, a role that he describes as “a great opportunity for a male dancer. I feel very fortunate. There are very few ballets that are named for the male dancer, so it brings you a big responsibility because people go in with an expectation to know who Onegin is. And I think it’s a tricky moment—Onegin’s not a very pleasant person. [Male dancers] are always used to being young and happy and pleasant, and he’s the opposite.”

Luiz believes that for a ballet like Onegin storytelling skills are essential, and he’s grateful that his mother was a writer and he grew up reading. “In your imagination you build on that,” he says. “So when you’re telling a story, you have some idea of how you can express it.” He recalls the impact of hearing Cragun talk about how he used to cry onstage in the scene where Onegin brings his letter to Tatiana. “He told me, ‘I was having trouble with Marcia [Haydée] in our relationship, and in this moment I was completely in tears,’ ” says Luiz. “And I realized that I had to listen to him because he was so into it that he could actually cry for real—that’s a big thing.”

Principal Dancers Maria Kochetkova and Gennadi Nedvigin bring a different kind of history to Onegin: they grew up reading Pushkin. “[Eugene Onegin is] one of the greatest Russian stories,” says Kochetkova. “I still remember most of it.” Acknowledging that non-Russian choreographers who try to make ballets of Russian stories sometimes don’t get them quite right, she says Cranko’s Onegin “is spot-on. It’s so smart, and it’s really close to the book. All the little moments are so perfect you feel like it would be hard to do something different. Even like a little movement of the hand—it can be so strong. It’s fascinating.”

Nedvigin, who dances Lensky, says he reread the book before rehearsals started “to refresh my memory. It’s so light; you’re just floating through the text. I wish everyone could read it in Russian because it makes more sense and is much more enjoyable.”

The ballet gives Lensky more to do than Pushkin did, says Nedvigin. Cranko’s Lensky, he says, is “young, and very romantic, very sensitive. The qualities that need to be demonstrated are something new; I can’t think of any other ballet that has that kind of character in it.” The key scene for him is the one before the duel, when he feels betrayed by Olga, his girlfriend, and Onegin. In that scene, Nedvigin says, “I’m really aware of what I’m doing and how I’m feeling, how I’m presenting it.” The culmination of those emotions comes in his solo before his duel with Onegin, which is “challenging because it’s very slow,” he says. “You have to control every movement, every step, and that really asks a lot from a dancer.”

That solo, says Principal Dancer Jaime Garcia Castilla, also cast as Lensky, is filled with emotions. After challenging Onegin, Lensky realizes what he’s done, Garcia Castilla says: “That guy’s not anybody; he’s a friend. So you have a moment of craziness, this desperation and frustration and anger.” When the solo begins, he says, “it’s lyrical, kind of like asking, ‘Why, why, why, why, why?’ in the pirouettes. Then you have a moment of melancholy and then the craziness. I feel like Lensky should go to his knees angry and then calm himself. I think he knows he’s going to die [in the duel] because Onegin is more experienced.”

Like Kochetkova and Nedvigin, Soloist Dana Genshaft, born in Moscow to Russian parents, has a personal connection to the story behind Onegin. When she called her family with the news that she had been cast as Olga, her mother, who had studied Pushkin and memorized Tatiana’s letter as a schoolgirl, “couldn’t get the words out fast enough, that’s how excited she was,” Genshaft says. “The letter is so beautiful, the way it was written in Russian, and so honest.”

Genshaft says Olga is the most substantial role she’s danced in terms of “having a character and having a pas de deux and a variation to deliver. It’s a very demanding part in terms of acting and dancing, and I think carrying the two together is the challenge.” In the stop-and-go rehearsal process it’s easy to focus on technique, she says, “but this is a character. So you’re never a blank slate—you always have something you’re connecting with.” She describes Olga as “funny and light. You have to go out there and think, ‘This is my party’—and then it all goes sour.” She enjoys the romantic moments, she says, “but I do like it when it gets really dramatic.”

The third act, with two nearly back-to-back pas de deux for Tatiana (one with Gremin, her husband, and one with Onegin), demands tour-de-force acting. “Tatiana is very comfortable resting in Gremin’s arms,” Tan says, describing how the pas de deux differ in emotional tone. “But with Onegin there’s that tension, very intense but passionate. Love has different dimensions and different looks.”

The tonal shifts are inherent in the choreography, but the dancers bring their own nuances and emotions to the final pas de deux. “I think every ballerina decides [what she’s feeling] for herself,” says Kochetkova. “There are very strong phrases in the book about why Tatiana rejects Onegin, but also you decide for yourself why. It’s not like she’s unhappy. But it’s a quiet happiness, and I feel like she can’t give this up for a maybe short time of something she wanted. I think she still loves Onegin, definitely. It’s the principle; she has to do the right thing. You have to make a decision about what’s right.”

Ultimately, that principle—of honor, of doing what is right—is what drives Cranko’s Onegin. As Onegin himself says in Pushkin’s novel, “If I am without honor, honor does not exist.” Honor brings pain and loss; it supersedes the most potent love. We see that vividly in that final pas de deux, which brilliantly conveys Onegin’s desperation and Tatiana’s anguish. Cranko pulls out all the stops in this duet, using movement and physical images that are unparalleled in their dramatic effect.

When the final curtain falls on Onegin, it’s impossible not to agree with Bourne’s assessment of the ballet: “It’s beautiful in every respect—choreography, storytelling, visually. It’s a joy to watch.”

Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola

Approximate program length: 2 hours, 16 minutes.
Composer: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky 
Choreographer: John Cranko

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