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Ballet Essentials: Onegin

Our quick guide to John Cranko's soaring narrative ballet.

By Rachel Thomas (Former Content Producer (Ballet))

19 December 2014 at 1.26pm | 2 Comments

The Story Begins…
When quiet, bookish Tatiana meets Onegin, she falls instantly in love. But Onegin sees only a foolish young girl. Impetuously he flirts with Tatiana’s sister Olga, outraging Lensky, Olga’s fiancé and Onegin’s only friend. Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel, with tragic consequences…

From Opera to Ballet
Choreographer John Cranko first approached Pushkin’s 19th-century verse novel Eugene Onegin, creating the choreography for a 1952 production of Tchaikovsky’s opera of the same name. Cranko was inspired, and later suggested to the Royal Opera House board that he create a ballet version. The idea was rejected, out of concern it would conflict with the opera. In 1961 Cranko moved from London to Stuttgart Ballet and there received support to create Onegin – provided he avoided the opera’s music. The ballet received its premiere in 1965 and has since been taken into the repertories of companies around the world.

A Musical Montage
Cranko commissioned the score for Onegin from Kurt-Heinz Stolze, then the Kapellmeister for Stuttgart Ballet. In Stolze’s own words, he ‘culled the music from various lesser-known compositions by Tchaikovsky and arranged most of it myself’. Drawn mostly from Tchaikovsky’s works for piano, the score also includes adapted arias and other numbers from The Tsarina’s Slippers, the duet from the incomplete opera Romeo and Juliet and a section of the symphonic poem Francesca da Rimini.

New Gestures
Pushkin’s verse-novel has an anonymous narrator, who helps the reader to understand his characters’ thoughts and motivations. Lacking the narrator, Cranko developed an original language of mime to achieve the same purpose, to powerful dramatic effect. The use of free gesture unrelated to conventional ballet mime was popular among UK-based choreographers of the 20th century; the modern yet still distinctly ‘danced’ movements that Cranko used in Onegin were a distinctive trait of many of his ballets.

Reflections of Genius
Another of Cranko’s innovations in adapting Onegin as a ballet was to introduce a mirror motif into the drama. In Act I, girls from the neighbourhood play a game, during which Olga, looking into a mirror, sees Lensky approach. In the next act, set in Tatiana’s bedroom, she stares into a mirror and has a dream vision of Onegin, with whom she dances the passionate ‘mirror’ pas de deux. This provides a link between the scenes, and is an effective way of crossing from reality to the fantasy world of Tatiana’s mind.


By Rachel Thomas (Former Content Producer (Ballet))

19 December 2014 at 1.26pm

This article has been categorised Ballet and tagged Ballet Essentials, by John Cranko, essentials, John Cranko, Kurt-Heinz Stolze, mirror pas de deux, Onegin, Production, Pushkin, Stuttgart Ballet, Tatiana, Tchaikovsky

This article has 2 comments

  1. Lindsay responded on 24 January 2015 at 1:26pm Reply

    A little disingenous to say that the ballet was rejected by the ROH "out of concern it would conflict with the opera". Some might say the decision, as well as Cranko's move to Stuttgart, was not wholly unconnected with his being prosecuted and fined in 1959 for homosexual soliciting (or importuning) as it was then known. Of course everyone at the ROH was very well aware that Cranko was gay but they were not prepared to publicly stand by him.

    • Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager) responded on 26 January 2015 at 10:41am

      Hi Lindsay,
      Many thanks for your comment. You’re right, Cranko’s arrest in 1959 for importuning was very likely a significant influence in his decision to leave the UK in 1961. That said, there is also evidence that in 1959 the ROH Board, led by Jack Donaldson, did have concerns that Tchaikovsky’s music for Eugene Onegin was ‘too serious’ for ballet and refused Cranko permission to make Onegin – later that year Kenneth MacMillan would have the same problem with Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, and he went on to have a successful, if often contentious, career at the ROH. The attention Cranko’s arrest attracted in the British press and the ROH Board's reaction to that denied Cranko the chance at such a career. But with Onegin it is only one factor, and in the context of this short article focusing on Onegin specifically, I don’t think it’s misrepresentative to say that the Board’s musical prejudices were a key factor in Onegin having its original staging with a company that was not The Royal Ballet.
      Thanks again,

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