Dancers & Companies

Turning Into Tatiana

Cranko's masterpiece Onegin is a ballet that does not seem to age. Pushkin's story and Cranko's brilliant telling of it find new audiences every generation. Dancers crave the responsibility to take it on and grow through its roles, and audiences keep going back again to witness the passionate turmoil of one of the most touching story ballets to date.

Onegin has changed my life and continues to do so. As a young boy I saw it and instantly chose to embark on a path that would include the challenge to tell a story through dancing. This path eventually led me from Canada to Cranko's own company in Stuttgart, which, given its rich history, cannot help but specialize in this sort of story ballet. I was promoted to soloist after dancing Onegin's friend Lensky and then was appointed principal dancer while simultaneously being told I would dance the role of Onegin himself. I have had the privilege of learning from people who were the closest with John Cranko and knew his intentions.

I have always found one of Cranko's most exquisite achievements to be construction of the female lead in Onegin: Tatiana. Since being created on Marcia Haydée in 1965, Tatiana has become one of the most defining ballerina roles in history. It is not easy to strike the right balance of dancing and acting abilities or to have the emotional maturity to make Tatiana's inner conflicts come alive. I have found myself fascinated by dancing this ballet with ballerinas in Stuttgart, Tokyo, and Paris.

Watching how each approached the Tatiana role gave me insight into the minds of each extraordinary woman who has danced it. Although Onegin is the title role, I recognize that it is Tatiana who drives the story forward. She pursues Onegin and it is also she who ultimately rejects him against her heart's desire. Onegin's drastic reactions depend on how she approaches the crucial moments in the ballet.

To shed some light on what it takes to prepare for this role, I decided to ask five ballerinas from around the world to share some of their thoughts on Tatiana.

“Very rarely does an opportunity arise to portray a character that is as beautifully envisioned as Cranko's depiction of Tatiana," says American Ballet Theatre's Julie Kent. “She is a singular character because she is noble to the core." The Stuttgart's Alicia Amatriain adds, “I like to be able to play a part with as many human emotions and thoughts as this lady has. I just can't imagine my life as a ballerina without her." National Ballet of Canada's Xiao Nan Yu was chosen from the corps to play the role before rising up through the company. She states, “Tatiana hits closer to home than any other dramatic role because this story could really happen to any woman with romantic yearnings. She is strong in her convictions and not fickle, but she is also a young girl at first. When I was first chosen to dance the part I could barely look at my partner in the eyes in rehearsals because I was so shy. I later realized that this is how Tatiana might have felt when first meeting Onegin."

When I ask about the human qualities of the role, Kent mentions, “With this part a woman must be completely honest. It is important to do Tatiana justice by letting her own voice speak, and not the image you may have of yourself."

Paris Opéra Ballet's Aurélie Dupont can identify, saying, “At first I was frustrated by the restraint required to play Tatiana when Onegin hurts her badly and ignores her. As I was learning the steps I wanted to be more emotional in these initial scenes, but then I realized that this is how it is supposed to be. Only in the last pas de deux can this beautiful woman truly explode with all of her inner conflicts. I looked forward to that last 10 minutes of the ballet with such impatience!"

San Francisco Ballet's Maria Kochetkova recently danced Tatiana for the first time but grew up reading Pushkin's story in Russia. When analyzing the character, she quotes directly from the verse that describes Tatiana as a girl who doesn't have the “youthful, rosy cheeks" of her more effervescent sister, Olga, but instead is like a “doe in a clearing" who prefers to be alone with her thoughts. “I saw Onegin at the Royal Opera House years ago," she says. “It completely blew me away. I didn't know that ballet could be so powerful. That night I changed my views on how I wanted to dance."

I figured that all five women had initially prepared by reading Pushkin and listening to Tchaikovsky (which they did). But I wanted to know what happened when they got into the studio to learn the choreography, which is quite athletic and acts as the “text" in the ballet. Dupont reflects, “The lifts are almost acrobatic to show Tatiana's heightened emotions in the mirror pas de deux when she imagines Onegin there with her. At first I struggled to make it seem fluid, but when I danced the ballet again this year, I found that an organic approach with less force made the pas de deux more natural and very enjoyable." On the physicality of the ballet Yu adds, “Of course, the partnering is Cranko, so it is challenging, but it makes so much sense with what one is feeling during those duets. The way the thoughts and lifts repeat themselves and return later on in the ballet again with a different maturity is so true to the story. There is a flow to it."

When I inquire about the choreographic language Kent replies, “This ballet masterfully uses minimal ballet mime. From beginning to end, the steps clearly tell a story that is diverse in tone...from charming to starkly dramatic."

In the studio we all work on making the partnering maneuvers seem seamless. As an Onegin, I have learned a lot about this while dancing the ballet. My colleague Amatriain states, “The woman also needs a lot of upper-body strength to be able to get the most out of the pas de deux in the first and third acts. Two people have to really become one." Kochetkova can attest to that, saying, “Tatiana is completely drained by the end of this three-act ballet. I believe Cranko's duets are unique because they take equal physical strength from the man and woman…though given the difficult lifts, I'm not sure my partner would agree."

Onegin and Tatiana have a very intense relationship throughout the ballet, so naturally, I wanted to know if Julie, Xiao Nan, Aurélie, Maria, and Alicia had any desires about what they think makes the right Onegin for them. “I believe a good Onegin has had a past of some sort," says Dupont. Kochetkova stresses the need for a connection on- and offstage. Amatriain says that to her the most important thing is simply finding a partner who is “able to truly share" with her. Yu says, “I like Onegin to have a dark side and be a true intellectual. He should be an incredible partner emotionally and physically." Kent's thoughts on the relationship are those of a seasoned ballerina: “Spontaneity and honesty are key in any performance that comes to life."

Does Tatiana have sentimental value for some dancers? “Being Russian, it's a wonderful experience to be able to work on a story which is so close to my culture," says Kochetkova. “Unlike the other tragic heroines I've performed, like Lady of the Camellias, Juliet, or Manon, Tatiana doesn't die at the end," says Dupont. “Because of her deep obsession with romance I feel like one can see that she is already predisposed for heartbreak at the very beginning of the story. She starts off alone and ends alone." Kent similarly adds, “The two main characters survive and are not reunited. This is very unusual for a ballet ending." Amatriain recounts: “It feels more 'real.' This ballet really aims directly for the heart." Yu says she loves that Cranko chose to end the ballet by having Tatiana all alone onstage. “It says so much about how sometimes doing the right thing in the face of passion can make one feel so alone. The curtain going down on Tatiana is one of the most striking images in ballet."

Most Russians can reminisce about their favorite verses from Pushkin's poem, and balletgoers in the parts of the world that Cranko touched can instantly recall their best-loved passages from Cranko's ballet. “Onegin is a ballet for the soul," says Kochetkova—to which Dupont adds matter-of-factly, “This piece and this particular character can touch anybody who has ever loved."

Megan Fairchild in Jerome Robbins' Dances at a Gathering. PC Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.

Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'

I even tried my hand at gymnastics. But when my mom's brilliant bribery of $100 for my first mastery of a kip or a back handspring didn't produce any results, we quickly threw in the towel.

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Dancers & Companies
Lopez in Circus Polka. PC Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

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Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

Training
Sylvie Guillem, via 1843magazine.com

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Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

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Abraham.In.Motion performing "Drive." Photo by Ian Douglas.

The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!

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Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.


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PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

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