Following the success of its premiere production of Onegin last season, San Francisco Ballet brings back to the War Memorial Opera House John Cranko’s magnificently creative interpretation of Alexander Pushkin’s classic verse-novel Eugene Onegin. With Tchaikovsky’s glorious score, and set and costume design by award-winning Santo Loquasto, this work of high drama, deep emotion and intense passion is not to be missed.
South African choreographer, John Cranko, first became acquainted with Pushkin’s heartrending tale when, in 1952, he choreographed the dance sequences for a production of Tchaikovsky’s 1879 opera, Eugene Onegin, and this provided the inspiration for his full-length adaptation - entitled simply Onegin - for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1965.
Cranko, who was born in 1927, initially studied ballet at the University of Cape Town Ballet School, under its founder, Dulcie Howes. It was there that he choreographed his first ballet, to Stravinsky’s Suite from The Soldier’s Tale, before moving to London in 1946, to continue his studies with Sadler’s Wells Ballet. In 1949, he took the decision to concentrate solely on choreography, and amongst his most successful works were the comic ballet, Pineapple Poll, which premiered at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in 1951, La Belle Hélène for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1955, and his first full-length work, The Prince of the Pagodas, for The Royal Ballet, in 1957. In 1961 Cranko was appointed director of the Stuttgart Ballet, where - amongst other works - he created Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, Carmen, Poéme de l’Extase and Traces.
In Cranko’s Onegin, the relationship which develops between the arrogant Onegin and the initially young and sensitive Tatiana is portrayed through a series of intensely emotional and challenging pas deux - the most well-known being the dream (or mirror) sequence from the scene in which she composes a letter to Onegin. Through these pas de deux Tatiana matures from an innocent country girl into a sophisticated woman at the height of Saint Petersburg society.
For Principal Dancers, Maria Kochetkova and Gennadi Nedvigin, Pushkin’s classic is part of their heritage and upbringing. Kochetkova refers to Eugene Onegin as “one of the greatest Russian stories ...... I still remember most of it”. Whilst she acknowledges that non-Russian choreographers don’t always successfully create ballets from Russian stories, she’s generous in her praise of John Cranko. His interpretation of Pushkin’s work is “spot-on” she says. “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 the role of Lensky - says he reread the book before rehearsals started last season, to refresh his 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.” Interestingly, he also says that Cranko’s ballet gives Lensky a much more significant role than did Pushkin. The key scene for him, he says, is the one before the duel, when he feels betrayed by Olga and Onegin. In this scene, he says: “I’m really aware of what I’m doing and how I’m feeling, how I’m presenting it. It’s challenging because it’s very slow. You have to control every movement, every step, and that asks a lot from a dancer.”
The score for the ballet - unlike that for the opera - was not composed by Tchaikovsky as such. Commissioned by Cranko, it’s an arrangement and orchestration, by German conductor Kurt Heinz Stolze, of various pieces by Tchaikovsky. Drawing mainly on a series of piano pieces, The Seasons, which Tchaikovsky had composed a couple of years prior to writing the score for the opera, Stolze also incorporates themes from another Tchaikovsky opera, Cherevichki, from his symphonic ballad The Voyevoda, from the fantasy overture Romeo and Juliet, and - for Onegin’s punishing farewell - the second half of his symphonic fantasia, Francesca da Rimini.
For more information about the production, performances and tickets, and to view some video clips, please visit the San Francisco Ballet website.
San Francisco Ballet’s Onegin is presented at the War Memorial Opera House from March 21 to 28.