The Royal Ballet 2001

November 22, 2001

The Royal Ballet finally danced John Cranko’s Onegin.
Simon Magill, courtesy Royal Opera House Press Office

Royal Ballet

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
November 22, 2001

Reviewed by Margaret Willis


John Cranko’s powerful masterpiece Onegin, based on the verse-novel by Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin, has finally taken its rightful place in the Royal Ballet repertoire?and it’s been well worth the long wait. The British choreographer originally proposed the work for the company in the early ’60s, but lack of interest prompted him to stage it on Stuttgart Ballet instead, where it premiered in 1965. It has since proved one of the best-loved ballets of the twentieth century and has found a home in many international companies. Now it has reached Covent Garden, and it fits the company like a glove.

Cranko’s choreography brilliantly weaves together the Russian tragedy, set against the lushly evocative sets and costumes of Jürgen Rose, and a surging Tchaikovsky score (not from the opera Eugene Onegin, but a compilation of some of his lesser-known works). He mixes the passionate pas de deux with lively group dancing, which showed off the company splendidly: The flirtatious dance in the first act ended with the ballerinas, supported by their partners, flying diagonally across the stage in a series of nonstop jetés; the homey dance for Tatiana’s birthday in the second act contrasted with the elegant sophistication of St. Petersburg society, dressed in pink and silver, in the third-act ball. Cranko has turned Tatiana’s famous letter scene into a dream sequence in which Onegin steps out from the mirror in her bedroom and the two share a passionate duet, incorporating the thoughts in her letter.

Top ballet honors at the premiere must go to Tamara Rojo, whose portrayal of Tatiana was outstanding. She has often demonstrated her mastery of technique with its unforced, beautiful line and extension and her fearless, fast footwork. But in Onegin, she threw herself into the choreography, dancing with great fluency and fervency, and this, combined with her intense and heartfelt acting, was so powerful that, at times, it produced goosebumps on her viewers. With her porcelain features, large eyes, and shiny dark tresses (first worn in a long braid topped by wide bow and later up, in a mature “married” style), she embodied the bookish young girl who falls desperately in unreciprocated love with the cold, boorish Onegin. The scenario offers ample opportunity for highly charged dramatic moments, which Rojo seized with believable and moving interpretation: Onegin’s cruelty to Tatiana after she has declared her love for him, and his subsequent flirtation with her sister Olga, which ends in a duel, and the death of Lensky, Olga’s fiancé. Then, a few years later, when he returns to society, Onegin sees Tatiana again, now contentedly married, and he tries to win back the love he realizes could have been his. Rojo was at her impressive best in the final volatile duet, where she has to choose between her husband and her true love; her decision made spines tingle.

Her Onegin was Adam Cooper, returning to his old company as a guest principal after his phenomenal success in the Adventures in Motion Pictures company’s Swan Lake. Sinister in black, Cooper presented the anti-hero as suave and calculating, skulking about rather than joining in, disapproving of provincial life and dismissive of the adolescent Tatiana. The role, full of dark acting and strenuous partnering, displayed his neat, disciplined technique, but while Cooper performed well, somehow he lacked the spark to set off his fire alongside Rojo’s. As young Olga, Alina Cojocaru came close to stealing the scenes with her sparkling eyes, bubbly joy, and excitement at being in love. Her dancing was like thistledown, light but accurate, and full of graceful nuances and inner awareness. Her Lensky was danced by ABT’s Ethan Stiefel, who brought gentility to his elegant dancing and tenderness to his character, in sharp contrast to the egotistical Onegin.

The evening was a triumph for the Royal dancers and was enthusiastically received. However, five evenings later, the second cast revealed yet more brilliance. Johan Kobborg’s Onegin was a more mesmerizing presence than Cooper’s. The Danish dancer demonstrated a forceful dramatic acting ability, which, with his impeccable technique, stamped his character as a conniving cynic who knew full well what emotions he was stirring up in Tatiana. He even wore a curled snarl of enjoyment at her anguish. Johan Persson and Gemma Bond made two lithesome and happy lovers. But the night belonged to the petite Cojocaru, who against all predictions (because of her youthful looks, sunny personality, and size), took on the role of the older sister, and showed incredible command and conviction in her authoritative reading of it. She was not merely acting her role?it completely took her over and transformed her. Her tiny frame miraculously acquired a weightier appearance than did her Olga.

Her every action was convincing?the nervous fidgeting and wide-eyed glances anticipating a response to her letter; her utter disbelief when it was torn up and returned; her glacial stare at Onegin that shattered his superciliousness after he had shot Lensky. Her features metamorphosed again in the third act, now as the settled, contented wife of Prince Gremin?until Onegin’s arrival, when Tatiana’s past passions came surging forth. Here with Kobborg, in the fiendishly difficult duet, Cojocaru was hurled, held high, dragged, and pulled, yet she never lost the beauty and clarity of her line. In the last moments, summoning up all her will and trembling with agony as she pointed to the door, she demanded his departure. Distraught, Cojocaru’s tears began to fall?and her audience reached for their Kleenex. An outstanding performance.