ARTISTIC DIRECTOR ADAM SKLUTE EXPLAINS THE STORY AND HISTORY OF ONEGIN
Onegin is considered by many to be one of the world’s greatest ballets. It is quite an honor for Ballet West to be granted permission to present it.
Based on Alexander Pushkin’s passionate verse novel Eugene Onegin, Onegin was conceived and choreographed by genius choreographer John Cranko in 1965. Cranko selected music by Tchaikovsky to accompany the ballet, in a wonderful arrangement by Kurt Heinz-Stolze. Tchaikovsky had written Eugene Onegin the opera in 1879, which has since grown to become a classic. However, for his ballet, Cranko chose not to use any of the music from the opera. Instead, with great innovation, he selected various pieces from the composer’s sublime and prolific orchestral repertory. The result, Onegin, became an instant hit, catapulting Cranko’s company, the Stuttgart Ballet, to international fame.
So what is Onegin about? Well, how many of us, when we were young, fell in love with an unattainable person? Perhaps it was the most beautiful girl in school, or the captain of a varsity team. Imagine writing them a note professing your love, only to have them ignore you… or worse, mock you. Then, years later, when you are successful and in a relationship, the old crush, who was previously oblivious and mean, comes back into your life to say you are the only one for them. You still have feelings for this person but… it is too late. The moment has passed. This time, it is you who breaks their heart. In brief, that is the story of Onegin.
Pushkin’s original verse novel was published serially from 1825 to 1832, in pre-revolutionary Imperial Russia. Not dissimilar from Jane Austen’s 1813 English novel Pride and Prejudice, Onegin follows a dark and brooding nobleman from the city (Onegin) who moves out to the provinces, befriends a lighthearted country nobleman, and meets the nobleman’s fiancée and her older sister, Tatiana. This is where the Russian tale takes on a darker hue than its gentler English counterpart does —Tatiana instantly falls in love with Onegin and, after their first meeting, writes him a passionate letter professing her undying love. Onegin rejects her as being too boring and rips up the letter. He is uninterested, and condescending. Worse yet, through a series of events, he ends up killing Tatiana’s soon-to-be brother-in-law in a duel. Tatiana cannot forgive him, but she goes on with her life, marrying a prince. Onegin suffers, experiencing deep guilt for killing his friend, and never finds another woman who loves him as much as Tatiana did. Years later, he is invited to a royal ball, and does not realize at first that Tatiana is the prince’s elegant wife. They are shocked to see each other. Now, Onegin writes a letter declaring his undying love for Tatiana, begging for her forgiveness. She refuses him and rips up his letter; they will never see each other again. While Tatiana has had a happy ending, it becomes clear Onegin will never find happiness in his life.
Onegin is filled with the perfect material for a dramatic ballet. And in my opinion, no choreographer was better suited to interpret this intense story than John Cranko, who possessed a gift for storytelling through movement. Cranko knew how to give his dancers deep emotions and serious acting to “sink their teeth into.” He was also a master choreographer, in particular in his astonishing pas de deux, which feature intricate and spectacular maneuvers. At the heart-melting end of Act I, in which Tatiana writes her love letter to Onegin, Cranko ingeniously conceives of Onegin as appearing in a dream to her after she falls asleep. In her dream, he is everything she wants him to be: loving, romantic, kind. As the ballet continues, again through Cranko’s deft handling of Pushkin’s story, we come to find that Onegin is not any of these things Tatiana imagines. At the end of the ballet, Cranko conceives of another pas de deux in which Onegin begs for Tatiana’s forgiveness. Now, as very real, mature, and flawed human beings, Onegin and Tatiana repeat many of the maneuvers from the Act I dream scene but with a more grounded, earthier and, at times, broken quality. These are just several of Cranko’s innovations throughout the ballet.
I was lucky to dance both leading and supporting roles in a number of Cranko’s ballets, but never in Onegin. Perhaps this is why I have been so passionate about it throughout my career. Tragically, Cranko died unexpectedly in 1973, only eight short years after creating this masterpiece of a ballet. I often wonder where his creative process would have taken him next, had he lived longer. Still, in his absence, we are left with a body of work that boggles the mind. I am grateful to Jane Bourne, who staged Onegin on Ballet West; to Reid Anderson, who coached the company in the ballet; and to Dieter Graefe, who oversees Cranko’s legacy through the late choreographer’s trust. I’m also particularly grateful to you for joining us for this brilliant ballet. I hope you leave the theater as inspired as I am every time I see Onegin.