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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."
Bales of hay, black umbrellas, bicycles—this Midsummer Night's Dream would be unrecognizable to the Bard. Alexander Ekman's full-length, inspired by Scandinavian solstice traditions and set to music by Mikael Karlsson, is a madcap celebration of the longest day of the year, when the veil between our world and that of the supernatural is said to be at its thinnest. The Joffrey Ballet's performances mark the seductively surreal work's North American premiere. April 25–May 6. joffrey.org.
"There's an ancient energy in Fana's movement, a deep and trusted knowing," says Jeff, director of the Chicago-based Deeply Rooted Dance Theater. "Because I witnessed the raw humanity of his dancer's souls, I wanted my dancers to have that experience."
When I wrote about my struggle with depression, and eventual departure from dance because of it, I expected criticism. I was prepared to be challenged. But much to my relief, and horror, dancers from all over the world responded with support and stories of solidarity. The most critical response I saw was this one:
"Dance isn't for everyone."
This may as well be a mantra in the dance world. We have become entrenched in the Darwinian notion that the emotionally weak will be weeded out. There is no room for them anyway.
In his final bow at New York City Ballet, during what should have been a heroic conclusion to a celebrated ballet career, Robert Fairchild slipped and fell. His reaction? To lie down flat on his back like he meant to do it. Then start cracking up at himself.
"He's such a ham," says his sister Megan Fairchild, with a laugh. "He's really good at selling whatever his body is doing that day. He'll turn a moment that I would totally go home and cry about into something where the audience is like, 'That's the most amazing thing ever!' "
Growing up in a family-owned dance studio in Missouri had its perks for tap dancer Anthony Russo. But it also earned him constant taunting, especially in high school.
"There was a junior in my sophomore year health class who was absolutely relentless," he says. "I'd get tripped on my way to the front of the classroom and he'd say, 'Watch out, twinkle toes.' If I raised my hand and answered a question incorrectly, I'd hear a patronizing 'Nice one, Bojangles.' "
Choreographer Sergio Trujillo asked the women auditioning for ensemble roles in his newest musical to arrive in guys' clothing—"men's suits, or blazers and ties," he says. He wasn't being kinky or whimsical. The entire ensemble of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is female, playing men and women interchangeably as they unfold the history of the chart-busting, Grammy-winning, indisputable Queen of Disco.
Have a scroll through Agnes Muljadi's Instagram feed (@artsyagnes), and you'll notice that in between her ballet shots is a curated mix of lifestyle pics. So what exactly sets her apart from the other influencers you follow? Muljadi has made a conscious effort to only feature natural beauty products, sustainable fashion and vegan foods. With over 500k followers, her social strategy (and commitment to making ethical choices) is clearly a hit. Ahead, learn why Muljadi switched to a vegan lifestyle, and the surprising way it's helped her dance career.
He may not be a household name, but you probably know Brandon Stirling Baker's work. The 30-year-old has designed the lighting for most of Justin Peck's ballets—including Heatscape for Miami City Ballet, and the edgy The Times Are Racing for New York City Ballet—but also Jamar Roberts' new Members Don't Get Weary at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and a trio of Martha Graham duets for L.A. Dance Project.
He's been fascinated by lighting ever since he attended a public performing arts middle school in Sherman Oaks, California, where he had his first experiences lighting shows. He also has a background in music (he plays guitar and bass) and in drawing. Both, he says, are central to the way he approaches lighting dance.
Update: Due to an overwhelming response, the in-person audition has been moved to a larger location to accommodate more dancers. See details below.
For the first time in more than 10 years, Janet Jackson is holding an open audition for dancers.
Even better? You could land a spot in her #JTribe simply by posting a video on social media.
What does it take to become an international superstar? Carlos Acosta might have a few ideas.
At the Oxford Literary Festival earlier this month, the BBC sat down with Acosta to ask for his life lessons. His answers—which he says he will pass on to his kids one day—give incredible insight into how he's become such a beloved worldwide success.