Onegin: To every thing there is a season

The double asterisks on the nightly cast lists say it all.

The symbol following a dancer’s name means “debut in role” and for the dancers now in the Australian Ballet, every role they play in Onegin is their debut.

After an absence of 16 years, John Cranko’s masterpiece has returned to the company following some adroit footwork by Valerie Wilder, the Australian Ballet’s executive director.

She visited Stuttgart herself to reclaim the rights to Onegin for the Australian Ballet from the two men who oversee those rights – Dieter Graefe, and Stuttgart Ballet’s artistic director, Reid Anderson.

Wilder has known Anderson since their days of working together at the National Ballet of Canada.

Thanks to her persuasive powers, a new generation of Australian Ballet dancers is able to make the precious roles of Tatiana, Eugene Onegin, Lensky, Olga and Prince Gremin their own, with guidance from a previous generation of Australian Ballet dancers, among them Fiona Tonkin and Steven Heathcote.

Created in 1965 by John Cranko in Stuttgart, Onegin has lodged itself in the classical ballet repertoire of at least 15 companies, among them the Royal Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, La Scala, the Tokyo Ballet, the Australian Ballet, Houston Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Boston Ballet, Hamburg Ballet, Royal Swedish Ballet, the Dutch National Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada.

Onegin’s longevity and popularity is the result of four factors: its inventive dramatic structure, its score – a collation of Tchaikovsky’s music, including his The Seasons – the complex characterisation of the principals whose encounters are told in the foreground against the background of the ensemble, and finally its use of leitmotif.

Onegin’s first act, representing innocence, dissolves subtly into the second act ending with disillusion, followed by the final act depicting sophisticated and, at last, resolution.

The choreography for the corps de ballet follows the same path, from the playful elements of Russian folk dance in Act I, to the social dance (the waltz and mazurka) in Act II and the elegant polonaise in Act III.

The corps does not merely dress the stage. The dancers are busy from start to finish and even have their own showstopper in the series of jetes, criss-crossing the stage in Act II.

The characterisation of the principal roles is shown not through mime but through the solos and pas de deux, all requiring impeccable control in either the tempo or the acrobatic lifts and throws.

Underpinning Onegin’s structure, is the idea of the seasons – time passing – with Act 1 set in a summer garden, in which Tchaikovsky’s soothing barcarole, “June”, from The Seasons, represents a lightness and brightness in the loving pas de deux for Lensky and Olga.
Lensky’s Act II solo preceding his death in a duel is danced to the plaintive “Autumn Song – October”, also from The Seasons.

The final act, to me, represents the finality of winter, with Tatiana’s last costume, a russet brown and ivory dress, signalling the sombre end of the affair.

Cranko created a leitmotif in the use of mirrors, with the small mirror in which Tatiana first glimpses Onegin expanding to a large mirror in which he appears in her dream.

As the German critic, Horst Koegler, wrote, this “lends the subject a mythological depth…it helps bind the individual scenes together, and gives Cranko the chance to cross the borders than separate reality from the realms of fantasy”.

Two Sydney casts

Due to an injury that briefly sidelined Adam Bull, the first cast couple (Bull as Onegin and Amber Scott as Tatiana) made their first appearance on the evening of May 5, the fifth day of the Sydney season.

The delay was well worth the wait.

Scott’s transition from the country girl to the sophisticated woman of St Petersburg showed a deep understanding of the character of Tatiana and an ability to clearly demonstrate the development from restraint, to agitation, to passion and finally anguish.

It’s all too easy to portray the heroine as a spoilsport and a misfit, but Scott’s young Tatiana was a believable, shy girl, with whom the audience could empathise.

As Onegin worked his charm on her vulnerability, Scott’s depiction showed Tatiana as appearing to be in a trance, drawn as a moth to a flame, jittery yet fixated on her love object.

In the final Act III pas de deux, in which Tatiana rejects Onegin, Scott was clear in the way she indicated the maturity behind the decision, but she also committed herself completely to the emotional and physical abandonment that is so essential.

Bull has the stature, the commanding presence, the sound technique and the acting ability to portray Onegin as a dangerous man, dangerous to both himself and all those he encounters.

We saw a glimpse of that dangerous man when Bull strode the stage as the character of Death in Graeme Murphy’s Romeo & Juliet.

Now I am looking forward to him tackling the role of Siegfried in Stephen Baynes’s new Swan Lake.

Andrew Killian, who danced as Onegin on opening night, had the perfect appearance and ideal demeanour for the role – a true man in black, one who is as seductive as he is destructive.

As the season continues, I believe his characterisation will develop even further, to fit like a hand in a black leather glove into this role.

Madeleine Eastoe has all the speed, attack and éclat to dance any ballerina role, including Tatiana, but her appearance and manner seemed more attuned to the role of the bubbly Olga, Tatiana’s sister. The subtlety of the passion and resolve that Tatiana feels in Act III was not as apparent as it might have been on opening night.

It’s clear that Eastoe has all the dramatic ability to develop this aspect to her performance as she has proved so many times with her heartbreaking performance as Odette in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake.

Kevin Jackson as Lensky and Leanne Stojmenov as Olga danced on both the opening night and on May 5.

Jackson’s finesse and control was clear in the two adagio solos that bracket Lensky’ transition from boy in love, to man in despair. Stojmenov was an ebullient Olga, more settled into the role by the end of the week, when she sparkled in the Act I pas de deux with Jackson.

On opening night, Andrew Wright was a fine Prince Gremin, tenderly partnering his Tatiana (Eastoe) and on May 5, Brett Simon was equally strong and dignified as a partner, though rather more distant in his characterisation.

Those differences, though, are part of the charm of Onegin. Each dancer brings his or her own personality to the leading parts as they carry the audience with them in the trajectory of the story.

Only two aspects of the production detracted from the whole. It must be difficult to change any detail of the sets and costumes, designed by Jurgen Rose (although it has been done) but maybe it’s time for the macramé-like drapes dangling over the action in Act II to be packed away.

The second and much more frustrating problem is the characterisation of the party guests in Act II in which the young and beautiful are coupled with the old and doddery – hardly a logical contrast in age and manner for such a realistic story.

As Cranko’s concept of dancers tottering about in bald wigs and bonnets clearly can’t be eliminated, why not cast guest artists, such as those former dancers in their 70s and beyond who appeared in Act I of Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker as the Russian émigrés? (I realise this would entail extra costs).

Young corps de ballet dancers should be able to dance, and not have to shuffle around as caricatures.

Finally, watching Onegin again after many years made me realise how much Kenneth MacMillan owes to Cranko.

MacMillan’s Manon (1974) shares with Onegin the slow and controlled solo in Act I (Des Grieux and Lensky), the business with the playing cards, the sitting at the desk writing a letter, the ghosts of the past that dance behind the scrim, and of course the beautiful bedroom pas de deux.

Great minds thinking alike?

Not that it matters. Both ballets remain brilliant gems in any company’s repertoire.

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Artists of the Australian Ballet, Onegin, Act III, photo © Branco Gaica

Andrew Killian and Madeleine Eastoe in the Australian Ballet’s Onegin, Act I, photo © Branco Gaica

Andrew Killian as Onegin and Madeleine Eastoe as Tatiana in the Australian Ballet’s Onegin, Act III, photo, © Branco Gaica

Amber Scott and Adam Bull in rehearsal for Onegin, photo © Lynette Wills

Amber Scott in costume for Onegin Act III, scene 1,photo © Lynette Wills