The precious gift of Tatiana

I recently interviewed dancers, past and present, who’ve danced the role of Tatiana in Onegin or who soon will.

For the Australian Ballet’s season, opening on May 1, four principals of the company will share the role.

They are being coached by Steven Heathcote who first appeared in the ballet in 1984, as Lensky, before going on to dance Onegin.

The following article first appeared in The Australian Financial Review’s weekend edition of April 14/15, 2012

Peasants and princesses, sylphs and swans. These are the workaday roles of a ballerina.

But the chance to portray a real woman as she moves from naivety to maturity is a rare thing in a dancing career.

Tatiana is that role.

To succeed, the ballerina needs a rare blend of skills and luck: the acting ability to portray the woman obsessed with the hero-villain, Eugene Onegin, the technical strength to navigate the daring and inventive choreography of John Cranko, the luck to find complete rapport with her dance partner, and the blessing of those who, after Cranko’s death watch over the staging of his works.

Stepping into the role for the first time next month is the Australian Ballet principal, Amber Scott, who will dance Tatiana on the opening night in the company’s revival of Onegin.

“It’s going to be a very special moment of my life”, said Scott. “For months I’ve had Tatiana in my head”.

Scott will dance the part throughout the season, sharing the role with three other principal artists of the Australian Ballet, Madeleine Eastoe, Miwako Kubota and Rachel Rawlins.

Each dancer has been coached by Steven Heathcote whose knowledge of the ballet stretches back to the mid- 1980s when he played the role of Lensky before graduating to Onegin.

Heathcote danced with many Tatianas, among them Vicki Attard, Fiona Tonkin, Justine Summers, Miranda Coney, and Alessandra Ferri and “with every ballerina I danced with there was a different chemistry”.

Attard remembers her time as Tatiana as “a precious gift. Meaty roles like this are the ones you remember forever”.

Tatiana’s unique appeal begins with the story itself. Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse by the Russian writer, Alexander Pushkin, epitomises the Romantic age, with all of its Byronic archetypes, conflicts, unrequited love, and oppressed sexual desire.

Choreographed for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1965 to an arrangement of Tchaikovsky compositions, Onegin was “perhaps the most successful original example of story telling in ballet made in the present century”, wrote Cranko’s biographer, John Percival.

Tatiana first appears as a sweet young woman, entranced by romantic novels and by the sophisticated stranger, Onegin. He rejects her and breaks her heart. Several years later, Onegin returns to claim her, but by now Tatiana is a woman of the world, secure in her marriage. While she still loves Onegin, she is bound by duty to her husband. In a reversal of roles, she orders Onegin from her life.

The principal dancers “need to approach the role in the same way as an actor”, says Heathcote.

“The acting needs to be absolute authentic and felt from the core so I think it’s quite an exposing ballet for dancers, particularly in the principal roles. You really have to plumb the emotional depths but that’s also why it’s such a revered role among dancers.

“The beauty of Cranko’s work is that it allows the performer to bring something of themselves to it and I feel that’s a very important approach for me to take to the dancers on this – that they bring their inner thoughts and feelings to the role rather than it being overlaid or prescribed upon them”.

Vicki Attard brought her own essential vulnerability to Tatiana in a 1996 gala staged by the Australian Ballet. With Heathcote, she performed the Act III pas de deux, in which Tatiana tears up a letter from Onegin and parts with him for the final time.

“I was so aware that I didn’t have Acts I and II to reach that near breaking point that comes with reading Onegin’s letter”, said Attard.

“Every night I would bring myself to crying point before curtain up, in order to set the previous scenes for the patrons.

“It’s a brilliant and unbelievably rewarding story to tell and differentiates from all the ‘happy ending’ stories, which are the norm in full length ballets. There are so many intricacies to Tatiana’s character. You could dance this role your whole life, and find something different every night. Unrequited love can be so much more fun to portray than reciprocated love”.

Miranda Coney, partnered in 1996 by Adam Marchant, recalls the same scene when “Onegin rushes into Tatiana’s bedroom and falls at her feet…Even now, just thinking about her tearing up his letter and sending him from her room still sends chills up my spine. Roles such as this are definitely the ultimate in a dancer’s career.

“The best roles are undoubtedly those with heart and soul, and this role requires you to extend yourself dramatically. You must be equally strong as a dancer and actress. Even though I was 29 and not a spring chicken in the world of dance, I believe I hadn’t yet acquired the wellspring of emotions required for such a role. If only I had the life experience I have today back then”.

From Stuttgart, the city where the ballet was created, Onegin is watched over by a protective inner circle of Cranko’s associates.
First among equals is Dieter Graefe, the life partner of Reid Anderson – the artistic director of Stuttgart Ballet – and a former personal secretary to Cranko. When Cranko collapsed and died on a transatlantic flight in 1973, Graefe became the chief beneficiary of the choreographer’s will, and the copyright owner of Cranko’s ballets.

Before any of Cranko’s works are performed, Graefe and Anderson give the thumbs up, or down, to casting choices.

Anderson often supervises the productions personally as he did in 1996 when he staged Onegin in Australia.

This time, two other members of Team Cranko came to Australia – Tamas Detrich, associate artistic director of Stuttgart Ballet and Jane Bourne, the dance notator who has been staging Cranko’s ballets for 35 years. Graefe is due in Sydney a few days before the season opens on May 1.

The Australian Ballet has been dancing Onegin since 1976 when Anne Woolliams, a former assistant to Cranko, became artistic director of the company.

For her first cast she chose Marilyn Rowe as Tatiana and John Meehan as Onegin.

“If ever there was a stage marriage it was that one”, says Rowe, now director of the Australian Ballet School.

“John and I had the most wonderful time with Anne doing those roles. We did some great things together – Gemini and The Merry Widow – but our favourite was that. We’ve both got very fond memories, the depth of emotion, the story and the development of the characters”.

And if she was coaching a Tatiana now?

“You have to read, you have to study and you have to talk about the progression of the story, and how you build the role and how this young naïve girl grows to become a woman. Also, it does help to draw on your own experiences in life”.

When Heathcote first danced Lensky in 1984, “I had a double bonus. I played Lensky against Gary Norman as Onegin, and later on, when I was playing Onegin, I had Gary coaching me in the studio and also Jonathan Kelly. So for me, working with the dancers this time, it’s a lovely feeling of passing on the baton”.

Coney recalls “some wonderful Tatianas” who went before her, including Lisa Pavane, Christine Walsh and Ulrike Lytton but she also did her research, watching videos, reading the story and “begging, borrowing and stealing from various resources along with a lot of soul searching to help mould my interpretation of the character. Eventually I found a way to make the role my own.

In performance, “one big challenge for me was to find a sense of poise and control within the flurry and free abandon of the movement and emotion, especially since the music is so powerful”.

Sixteen years later, the new Tatianas have been watching Miranda Coney on a video clip from 1996.

Each has to find her own way to the truth of the story. As Reid Anderson, once wrote, “the steps stay the same but the portrayal must become the physical and emotional property of the individual artist.”

For Amber Scott, “you need to summon things from your soul. I definitely draw on things that have happened to me. We don’t live 200 years go in Russia, but we still have the same heartbreak. I am a romantic so I find it easy to form the character.

“I’ve done a fair bit on my own, reading the book, getting a sense of that time in Russia, the way you act, your posture, the way you are with a man, having no choice…I found watching the Ralph Fiennes and Liv Tyler movie very interesting and I’ve been YouTubing a lot”.

Top of the Onegin YouTube lists are the Act I and Act II pas de deux for Tatiana and Onegin. Both pas de deux are acrobatic, virtuosic, full of daring falls, lifts, unusual grips and passionate embraces.

“With the last pas de deux, you can turn it almost into hysteria”, said Scott. “I’m going to try to not let that happen. It is a hard thing to show that kind of grief without words, without sound, but that’s what ballet is”.

And with Cranko, less is always more. In Onegin, no one drowns in a lake like Odette. No one retreats to the grave like Giselle. When the romance is over, Tatiana clenches her hands and sobs – silently of course – as the curtain falls.

Onegin is at the Sydney Opera House, May 1-21 and Arts Centre, State Theatre, Melbourne, June 23-July 4

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Amber Scott, as Tatiana in Onegin, The Australian Ballet, photo © Lynette Wills

Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg in Onegin. Photo, Dee Conway / ROH ©

Aurélie Dupont and Evan McKie in Onegin © Michel Lidvac

Liv Tyler as Tatiana