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Ingenious, expressive, and unconventional: Onegin and the use of gesture

Choreographer John Cranko brings to life the internal worlds of his characters through expressive movement in his ballet adaptation of Pushkin’s poem.

By Giannandrea Poesio (Director of the Research Institute for Media, Arts and Performance at the University of Bedfordshire)

20 January 2015 at 4.58pm | Comment on this article

Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin is anything but an ideal subject for a dramatic, operatic or choreographic adaptation. Apart from the metric structure of the writing, the events are related by an anonymous narrator, who takes constant care to provide the reader with an often amazingly detailed wealth of information. In other words, Pushkin’s work is not just an engagingly tragic story, but also a richly woven and somehow complex psychological portrayal of characters living, like the author himself, in an era of change.

Choreographer John Cranko had a unique talent in dealing with the seamless and theatrically effective juxtaposition of pure storytelling and the psychological portrayal of the various characters. In his 1965 ballet Onegin, such juxtaposition reaches high levels thanks to a constant use of choreographic and dramatic shadings that allow the viewer to appreciate in full the relationship between the inner microcosms of each character and the twists of their everyday reality.

Every single character in the ballet expresses himself or herself through a powerful language of dramatic gestures. And yet none of these movements stems from the well-established tradition of what is normally referred to as ‘ballet mime’. Nor are these gestures too literal, even though they remain readable, immediate and accessible throughout the whole work.

Look at the way Onegin repeatedly ‘encircles’ Tatiana with his arms in the final duet. It is not a common, everyday movement, nor does it stem from any theatre-related convention. It is primarily a choreographic gesture, created in line with the steps and the dynamics of the dancing it complements. And yet that repeated motion speaks volumes about Onegin’s final attempt to rekindle Tatiana’s lost love. It is a gesture that combines remorse, passionate desire and reverential, almost religious respect for the now unattainable object of his desire.

Similarly, the arm that Lensky extends towards the sky while performing the brief trio with Olga and Tatiana in the duel scene is an instantly readable gesture, though not a strictly conventional or literal one. The contrasting dynamics of the movements performed by the two women – keeping close to each side of the man – turn that theatrically effective movement, albeit disarmingly simple and brief, into a highly expressive one. It is both an invocation of a superior entity, begging for mercy, and the typical expression of sorrow, despair and rebellion against fate typical of those who sense an impending tragedy.

A few minutes earlier, Lensky’s breathtaking solo has transmitted the young man’s doubts, fears and sadness through a number of similar gestural devices. The right hand rests gently either at the forehead or at the heart while the dancer balances with a leg fully extended backwards: this is synonymous with the lyrical nature of the young man, a would-be poet living in a world made mostly of dreams and extreme passions. The gesture, in its two variants, makes an immediate reference to both the tragic thoughts (the forehead) and the strong emotions (the heart) that underscore Lensky’s turmoil.

It would be wrong to credit Cranko with the ‘invention’ of these theatrically effective movements. Innovative as they may be within the context of the 1965 ballet, they are simply an ingenious adaptation of similarly expressive, non-conventional and non-literal gestures that had already been explored by a number of British-based choreographers. But there is little doubt that, together with a unique sense of dance-making that allowed Cranko to delve further into the inner depths of his own characters, that language of gesture soon became one of the distinctive traits of his art and one of the most significant innovations of modern ballet. As such, it stands as a splendid reminder that ballet, after all, is theatre, and not just meaningless steps.

This is an extract from Giannandrea Poesio’s article ‘Gestures that Speak’ in The Royal Ballet’s programme book, available during performances and from the ROH Shop.

The production is given with generous philanthropic support from Simon and Virginia Robertson, David Hancock, Lady Jarvis, Lindsay and Sarah Tomlinson, The Artists’ Circle and The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund.

By Giannandrea Poesio (Director of the Research Institute for Media, Arts and Performance at the University of Bedfordshire)

20 January 2015 at 4.58pm

This article has been categorised Ballet and tagged background, by John Cranko, choreography, Eugene Onegin, gesture, introduction, Onegin, Production, programme trail, Pushkin

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