Cranko’s Onegin

I recently saw Cranko’s Onegin for the first time and discovered what a superb ballet it is. Seeing it twice in one day with the Royal Ballet I was prompted to immediately purchase the original Pushkin verse-novel (as translated by Stanley Mitchell in the Penguin Classics volume) which I quickly devoured – a truly fascinating work that I urge anyone to read. After seeing the ballet for a third time (on a Student Amphi night at the ROH) I began to think more deeply about how Cranko had interpreted the text.

I will first start by saying that I think Cranko created a ballet of the highest order with Onegin, and paved the way for more emotionally dramatic works by MacMillan and others. What I find most interesting though, is where Cranko has taken artistic licence and diverted from the text somewhat – and how this changes our interpretation of the characters and their situation.

Early on in Pushkin’s work we get the sense that Onegin is not an unkind man, just perhaps at times misunderstood. Forced from his exciting city life to a “Country place where Eugene suffered” (II 1). This is reinforced in his reaction to Tatiana’s letter. Unlike Cranko’s Onegin’s overt anger at the party, Pushkin’s Onegin puts Tatiana down gently whilst out in the woods. Although initially giving a seemingly clichéed reply along the lines of ‘it’s not you, it’s me’, Onegin bares his soul to Tatiana explaining he cannot love her like she needs, he is unsuited for marriage, and that he loves her “like an elder brother” (IV 16).

“If I had wanted life restricted
To living in domestic bliss;

I’d doubtless choose no other bride
Than you to cherish at my side.” (IV 13)

Pushkin comes immediately to Onegin’s defence, stating “[Onegin’s] soul showed here in noble light” (IV 18). This is a sharp contrast to Cranko’s harsh tearing of Tatiana’s letter in front of her face in the midst of the party. This added drama certainly adds much to the scene, although at the expense of Onegin’s character.

The cause of Onegin’s inappropriate flirting with Olga is less clear. It seems to simply be a culmination of many factors including mundane boredom – something portrayed in both Pushkin and Cranko. With a much more formal lead up to the duel (including a letter setting out terms) Pushkin also forgoes much detail into Onegin’s reaction to his murder of Lensky. Cranko, however, opens the a small window in Onegin’s soul as he breaks down following his henious deed.

Cojocaru and Reilly in Onegin (Photo credit:  Tristram Kenton for The Guardian)

Cojocaru and Reilly in Onegin (Photo credit: Tristram Kenton for The Guardian)

It could be argued that Tatiana is the main focus of both the novel and ballet. It is her journey that is the catalyst to Onegin’s, and her final rejection of Onegin gives the story it’s shocking and climactic conclusion. In the books Tatiana is much more of an outsider than Cranko’s interpretation, to the extent that: “She seemed inside her family // A stranger, an anomaly.” (II 25).

Two key scenes for Tatiana are combined and altered in Cranko’s interpretation: the letter and dream scenes. Cranko creates a memorable scene full with a gripping and, if not overtly sexual then certainly fantasy-stricken, pas de deux. In the original Pushkin, Tatiana’s letter is much more naive and heartbreaking. She even goes as far as to tell him “My fate is sealed, // I place it now in your safekeeping, // I beg of you, become my shield” (III Tatiana’s Letter To Onegin). The dream scene appears much later (after Onegin’s rejection) and is far from sexual – a symbolic foreshadowing of events to come, replete with such oddities as “A witch with bearded goat cross-bred” (V 16) – I think most would agree that Cranko was wise with this omission!

The essence of Tatiana and her journey is unchanged between the verse-novel and ballet however. I think it can be summed up no better than the epigraph for Chapter III:

“Elle était fille, elle était amoureuse — Malfilâtre” (III)
[She was a girl, she was in love]

Onegin, both as a book and a ballet, would be nothing without the final scene and Tatiana’s rejection. Gremin, talking to Onegin, reveals Tatiana’s new identity: “‘Wait, I’ll present you, when they end.’ // ‘But who is she?’ ‘My wife, dear friend.'” (VIII 17). This prompts Onegin to write a letter to Tatiana (in the book there are multiple letters). Mirroring Tatiana’s near-pleading letter, Onegin finishes “My life depends on your decision // and I surrender to my fate.” (VIII Onegin’s Letter To Tatiana) and in the ballet falls to the floor at Tatiana’s feet.

Cranko embelishes Tatiana’s response in his shattering final Pas de Deux, allowing her more temptation then the text perhaps suggests. He also leaves her alone at the close, rather than Onegin in the novel (about to be found by Gremin). By opening and closing with Tatiana, he has completely reversed the position of Pushkin, more evidence that Cranko wished for the story to be Tatiana’s journey rather than Onegin’s (and in the process has made Tatiana more human and Onegin less so). Even with these alterations, Tatiana’s final reaction remains constant in both forms. Here is a closing segment from Pushkin’s verse, followed by Alina Cojocaru and Johann Kobborg in the final pas de deux:

“Your heart is honest and I prize it:
And there resides in it true pride
With candid honour, side by side
I love you (why should I disguise it?),
But I am someone else’s wife,
To him I shall be true for life.” 
(VIII 47)

The character I feel Cranko perfectly captured, unaltered, is the poet Lensky. In his elegiac variation before the duel Cranko gives Lensky’s final poem life:

“When daybreak comes with rays ascending
And sparkling day dispels the gloom,
Then I, perhaps – I’ll be descending
Into the mystery of the tomb,” 
(VI 22)

I think all else that I need say about this can be conveyed simply by watching this masterful variation, danced here by Heymann of POB:

As an amusing closing remark, Pushkin includes a verse in Chapter I which describes Onegin attending a ballet in his youth: “Looks at the stage, then turns away – // And yawns, exclaiming with dismay: // “The whole damn lot there nees replacing” (I 21). An obvious omission for Cranko, but I do wonder if he was tempted to include it?

In conclusion, I think Cranko made some very clever choices in his slight manipulation of Pushkin’s original text. These serve to raise the drama when danced and work to great effect. I’m also intrigued to see how Tchaikovsky himself interpreted Onegin in his opera Eugene Onegin next month (performed at the Royal Opera House). I’ve heard great things and will be intrigued to see how it differs from the ballet.

Have you seen Onegin and read the verse-novel? What did you think of Cranko’s interpretation?

Until next time, keep dancing!

You can still catch Onegin at the Royal Opera House until the 8th February 2013. Tchaikovsky’s opera, Eugene Onegin is on from 4th to 20th February 2013 and will be screened live to cinemas on the 20th February 2013.

Stephen Fry recently released a free download of an audiobook of the original Pushkin novel. Go grab a copy!


As you may know, I am a Royal Opera House Student Ambassador. I went into this role knowing a fair bit about ballet but being a little inexperienced with respect to opera. I’m not completely oblivious – I’ve seen a handful of operas in the past and have sung in a chorus for oratorios and various concerts – but ask me to name some arias and I’d probably stop after three or four. I therefore viewed the ambassadorship as a way to enhance my knowledge of opera and share a journey with other ‘newbies’, which excited me to no end.

So it was a great thrill to hear from Simon (the guy in charge of us) that we had been invited to observe Royal Opera Live (or #ROLive in twitter-speak): a full day going behind the scenes as the Royal Opera prepare new productions, current repertoire and future concepts. Here’s the intro video all about #ROLive:

Leaving Bath at the ungodly hour of 6:35am, I arrived at the Royal Opera House stage door around 9:20am – just in time for Ed Watson to brush past me on his way (I presume) to warm up for morning class. I was a little ballet-starstruck, but not as much as when we sat down for our morning briefing and Dame Monica Mason was on the table next to us being interviewed – talk about a living legend! But the day was to be about opera so I peeled my eyes away and concentrated on the complicated schedule, which had been precisely incremented down to the second.

First up for us was a model showing of a new production of Rossini’s take on the Lady of the Lake: Donna del Lago. When I read this on the schedule I was a little confused – why is a model so important and why should it take an hour to see it? It turns out a model showing is an entire minature recreation of a full set along with costume designs, concept ideas and even small figurines. This is a chance for a director (and their creative team) to explain to the influential and important people of the Royal Opera House their vision before it gets put into production.

I don’t think I had ever truly considered the amount of thought that goes into an opera (or ballet) production. The director, John Fulljames, began explaining the idea that the Scottish landscape is an emotional, visceral place that changes people. They make use of embodiments of Rossini and Sir Walter Scott (with their whisky-drinking liberal friends!) reminiscing the tale to emphasise this emotion, and their distorted opinions warp the costume and design of the ensuing scenes. Seeing all the thought that had gone into just this one production made me start to realise the effort that a single new production takes – and this was before any sets or costumes had been made! The fact that the Royal Opera House can put on a handful of new productions every season is truly staggering.

Next up we sneaked into the side Stalls Circle to watch the piano rehearsal of The Minotaur – a new opera from Birtwistle that has been slightly reshaped since its 2008 premiére. Unlike most Opera I have seen, there was a rawness to this work; the music reflected the harsh reality the Minotaur inhabited. This was echoed in a stark set, blood-baying chorus and terrifying minotaur head. Later we would catch a glimpse of the Sitzprobe (literally ‘seated rehearsal’) where the singers would be accompanied by a full (86-piece) orchestra for the first time and we would hear the depth and complexity that the piano was unable to convey in this rehearsal. Here’s the trailer for The Minotaur:

Heading for lunch, we called into the ROH staff canteen (eating amongst Royal Ballet School dancers and Ed Watson!) before making our way back up to the Clore for the Royal Opera Chorus’ rehearsal of Va Pensiero: the rousing chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Verdi’s Nabucco. Launching straight into a full run-through I immediately got goosebumps as the chorus lamented and then roused themselves as a vocal challenge to their oppressors. It was only once they had finished and their chorus master, Renato Balsadonna, started pinpointing corrections that I realised the depth with which they worked on this piece. This small syllable could be more melancholic, that note could be more defiant. Much like a ballet dancer aims to tell a story and portray a character with every step they make, so too does a singer with every note they sing. Truly fascinating, especially the ability of Balsadonna to pinpoint the smallest of corrections, much like an accomplished Ballet Master or Mistress correcting a corps de ballet. Here’s a clip of the Met chorus singing Va Pensiero:

Following on from the chorus rehearsal we were treated to something entirely different, and a bit more like what I’m used to – physical training. The Jette Parker Young Artists are young singers at the Royal Opera House who get a rounded education to make them into world class Opera stars. Not only are they tutored in vocal issues, but also in all elements of stagecraft including, we found out, fighting. In their scenario they fought with a razor blade landing multiple blows and eventually a fatal one. This was an element of their performances I had not thought about, much as the sword fighting training shown on Royal Ballet Live for Romeo & Juliet. Once again, it was astonishing to see just how much effort goes into this world – and the fact they could do all this fighting whilst singing!

With a quick break we had a wander around the ballet studios to see if there were any rehearsals going on. It was surprisingly quiet, but we did get a glance at Cojocaru/Kobborg and Nuñez/Soares warming up before having a good look inside the MacMillan studio (including a picture of me at the barre to appear soon!).

Following on was an interview with Politician-turned-Broadcaster, and passionate Opera-goer, Michael Portillo. I found myself completely agreeing with his words, applicable to both opera and ballet. One particular comment resonated – that to enjoy opera (and also, I believe, ballet) you simply have to open yourself up to the experience. If you open up and let the story transport you to its world then the magic can truly happen: you find yourself laughing and crying, in joy and grief, and are suddenly part of the story yourself. That is the true beauty of opera, ballet, and the performing arts.

Moving from the emotion to the technical, Dušica Bijeli? (a Jette Parker Young Artist) had a vocal class for an aria in Eugene Onegin (for which she would be covering Tatiana in the upcoming production). I never realised singing could be so technical! Her corrections seemed for the tiniest things: a slight unwanted delay between syllables, a “t” sound rather than a “dd” sound. To think that she covered only a 3 minute aria in a 20 minute session – the whole opera is over three hours long! It is this attention to detail, however, that makes the Royal Opera (and the Jette Parker Young Artists) world class.

And all of a sudden our day was over. Unfortunately we couldn’t stay for the evening performance of La Bohème but I’ll certainly be going to see it next week when it’s beamed across the world on live cinema relay. It was truly a fantastic day and, more than anything, it was a privilege to see hundreds of dedicated and talented people work together to create magnificent works of art. (It also cemented my dream of one day working for the Royal Opera House in some way or another!) I’ll certainly be checking out the cinema relay of Donna del Lago after the great model showing and I’ve already booked tickets for Die Zauberflöte (one of my favourite operas) and Eugene Onegin later in the season. I know my passion still lies firmly with ballet but today has taught me there is a whole world of opera for me to explore too – and I can’t wait to get started!

Did you catch #ROLive? What did you think? Have you seen an opera recently? Let me know in the comments section below!

Until next time, keep on dancing!

Reflecting on 2012

This year has been a bit of a rollercoaster for my ballet journey, but thankfully there have been a lot more highs than there have been lows. It was only whilst talking to a childhood friend over Christmas that I started to grasp how much has happened over the last twelve months, and how it has shaped my dancing.


As the new year opened, I was settling in to my new flat, PhD, and life in Bath. I had been lucky enough to find a great RAD class in Bath (Intermediate level with an ex-Royal Ballet Principal teaching) and had joined Ballet Bristol, a local adult repertoire group, although I hadn’t started learning any repertoire yet.

After a successful gala in December (so successful I couldn’t even get a ticket!) it was time for everyone to start learning new repertoire at Ballet Bristol, and that included me! The first piece I learnt was a fun Pas de Quatre, Pas des Déesses, which I would dance with three of the ladies in BB. This meant I had to do some basic partner work in the main section (promenades and assisted pas de chats) and had my own little variation (involving lotsof entrelacés!).

Me and my three gorgeous partners in my first performance of Pas des Déesses

After a few months practice I had my first ever performance with BB – a charity gig at the local hospital’s Serious Brain Injury rehab unit. Although the room was a little smaller than we were used to (and had a pillar in the middle!) it was great to perform in front of an audience, and the patients and their family seemed to really enjoy it! This would be the first of a few charity performances throughout the year, and every single one was rewarding and fun.

The next big ballet adventure was a fantastic day of dance in London which included a BalletBoyz workshop with their Ballet Master at Sadlers’ Wells. Not only was this a chance to dance in such hallowed studios, but also a chance to really work on my technique and get some tips. With an emphasis on bringing out the masculinity of movements and, more importantly, truly performing everything we did, it was a fantastic opportunity. I seriously hope they repeat the workshop in 2013!


My summer started with a bit of a rollercoaster all to do with my classes in Bath. A film crew were coming to Bath to shoot a new TV 2-part drama (with a cast including Rupert Everett, John Hannah and Natalia Wörner!) in which one of the characters auditions to dance Giselle with a ballet company. The auditions were being shot in the gorgeous Assembly Rooms in Bath and all the choreography was by my teacher and one of her old dancing partners from the Royal Ballet. As it would be a bit weird to have an empty studio for auditions they needed a few “ballet extras” to be other auditionees warming up and they picked a few of us from the dance school. As such, I got to spend a day being paid for hanging around in ballet gear and chilling on set with some amazing actors (who were all lovely) – pretty good if you ask me! The film hasn’t been released in the UK and US yet but was shown on German TV over Christmas, so you could see part one and part two with German dubbing online (although I think the videos have been taken down now). You can spot me around 25 minutes into the first part and dotted in a few other scenes :)

After this fun I was a bit shocked to be taken aside by one of the receptionists before the last class of term. She told me they would be starting rehearsals for their March school show when thet came back in September. I hadn’t expected them to necessarily include me in the show (I was nearly ten years older than some students in my class) but was surprised to be told that they wanted me to “take a break” from class until March. I was a little hurt that after 9 months of hard work I would suddenly be taking a massive step back in terms of my RAD teaching. They later told me in August that I could come back to class until they started rehearsals proper, but got a call on the day of the first class back to say that they would be starting straight away. According to the receptionist, the ballet piece would be “girly girly” and none of the boys in my class (there were two others, both amazing dancers) would be involved – something I’m really quite disappointed about.

My favourite pic from the Big Screen Performance. Surprised myself by actually being nicely turned out!

After all that ballet turmoil I also had my PhD work to do, and in the process was sent to Canada for three weeks in July, followed by a (free!) trip to NYC staying with a friend for five days on my way back. Simply being on a different continent was not enough to stop me on my ballet journey – I took class in Toronto and London (the one in Ontario, not England) and saw the National Ballet of Canada (including one of my top three performances ever – Song of a Wayfarer). New York is kind of a Mecca for the dance world and (now I’m a little further on in my training than when I left) I made full use of it! I took 14 hours of class in three days, saw ABT three times over, saw one of my old teachers, saw loads of awesome tweeps and fell in love with tap dancing thanks to Anything Goes.

Back in the UK I had another performance with Ballet Bristol, and this one was rather special. We would be the warm-up and interval act for the BP Big Screen of the Royal Ballet in Titian: Metamorphosis! I’d be dancing Pas des Dessées and after surviving a technical hitch and a wet slippy floor we had a ball – definitely one of my more memorable performances!

Promotional shot of Ellie, Fi and myself taken after the performance.

It’s hard to pick an absolute highlight of my year, but I’ve got a feeling my week at Ballet Cymru would top the list. The chance to spend every day getting taught by amazing dancers and learning new repertoire was fantastic and I tried to make the most of it. It was certainly hard work but it did convince me that in another life I would have loved to dance for a living! I also got to share a flat with some fantastic pre-professional dancers who I made really good friends with and were all willing to share tips and tricks. I got to see one of my flatmates, who is studying at Elmhurst, perform in Cinderella with Birmingham Royal Ballet recently – amazing to see him on stage rocking it! The week ended with a performance for friends and family which was so much fun – although by the end of dancing two pas de deux pieces, the Mazurkas from Coppélia, part of Franz’s Act III variation from Coppélia, and a contemporary piece I was absolutely knackered!


Autumn started with some new repertoire at Ballet Bristol, preparing for our Gala show (originally December 2012 but now hopefully March 2013). I started working on the Jewel Fairies from Sleeping Beauty, with two partnering sections and the Gold variation to learn. I worked on the Wheat Pas de Deux from Coppélia which has been a lot of fun – tricky partnering but a joy to dance, especially with my awesome partner Laura! Finally, I’m going to be working on the Act III Wedding Pas de Deux from Coppélia and a new, more contemporary, Pas de Deux in the next few months – all very exciting!

I was thrilled to attend the first ever #UKBalletTweepMeet – a chance for a few of us twitterers to meet up and take a class together. The fantastic Karis from EverybodyBallet put us through our paces in a great 90 minute class and this was followed by lots of ballet-chat – it’s all about “post-barre bar”! I’m definitely looking forward to attending more of these in the future :)

Photo from the Russian Youth Ballet Company class - don't know why my back knee is bent... Perhaps I was about to do something?!

After all the furore at my ballet school in Bath there was a silver lining. Knowing I’d be losing a class for at least six months (I still haven’t decided if I want to go back after March – my teacher is amazing and lovely, but I don’t like the way the school has treat me) I emailed a few other local(ish) ballet schools to see if they had space for a 25 year old guy. Contacting a Russian Ballet School I got a reply asking whether I’d be interested in auditioning for their Russian Youth Ballet Company. It didn’t take long for me to reply saying I’d love to! The audition was a little nervewracking (4 hours of class and rehearsal knowing you’re being watched is intense!) but I was thrilled to get in, and have been loving it ever since. With fortnightly rehearsals the girls have been working on Act II Swan Lake whilst the guys have been learning some cool variations. Starting with two variations for Rothbart from the Kirov Swan Lake we’ve now also gone through Basilio’s variation from Don Quixote and the Pas D’esclave variation from Le Corsaire – I can’t get enough of it!


They say things get better with age, and that was certainly true about 2012 for me. In the final couple of months I had a jam packed, exciting time full of ballet opportunities.

Me in my Nutcracker costume for the competition with the Uni!

I was honoured to be selected as a Royal Opera House Student Ambassador. This means I get to promote the Royal Opera House (and Ballet/Opera in general) at my University and I also get the chance to shape how the ROH outreaches to students in the future. I’ve already had the chance to see the Viscera triple bill with the other student ambassadors (even walking past Liam Scarlett backstage before the performance!) and will be heading in on Monday for #ROLive (the follow up to the fab #RBLive last year).

I danced with my University for the first time this year which lead to me competing, something completely new to me. Although it had been a bumpy road in rehearsals (dancers falling out with each other, including one rehearsal where the choreographer refused to speak after an argument with another dancer – I steered well clear of all this!) it was fun to perform and we were thrilled to place first! If you had told me 2.5 years ago that I’d be in a winning ballet group I would never have believed you. I think winning has also helped a little with my confidence – I’m always aware that I haven’t been dancing that long but being part of the team has convinced me that I can’t be too bad if we still won even with me in there! All the drama means I won’t be dancing with the University again next term but I’m glad I did it anyway.

My favourite picture from those taken in my Winter classes - I've definitely got my concentration face on!

I was really pleased when the couple who run the Russian YBC asked if I wanted to start taking their Advanced class at their Russian Ballet School – I’m now taking class every Tuesday and Friday along with the fortnightly 4.5 hour class/rehearsals on a Sunday – I can’t get enough! They also announced that in April we will be doing two performances (matinee/evening) of Swan Lake – the Youth Ballet Company dancing the whole of Act II (and, I think, some of Act IV) and the Ballet School dancing condensed versions of Acts I and III. I couldn’t believe it when they asked me to be Rothbart- meaning I’ll have my own variation at the start of Act II (to the awesome, iconic Act II theme) and even have a little partnerwork with Odette/Odile and some ballet mime! I’m also going to be dancing Spanish in Act III (as Rothbart) so have plenty to learn. On top of all this we’re having a Masterclass with a Vaganova Academy teacher in January, and hopefully our Patron, Elena Glurdjidze (Senior Principal at ENB) will be giving a Masterclass soon as well! And to finish it all off, in my final class of 2012 I managed to (finally) complete the grand pirouette and coupé jetés en manège combination – I’ve never been able to make the full circle en manège before! Woo!

Then just before the end of the year we had a photographer in a couple of my classes and one took a video of some of the combinations – here’s me in the adage from one of the classes!

On top of all that I had my PhD Transfer in December – a major milestone on the way to my degree. Submitting a 90 page report, giving an hour-long presentation and having an hour-long viva (Q&A) with two professors pushed my sanity to its limits but I passed and the next step is hopefully submitting my final thesis in 2014! It’s a big relief to get it over with and ballet certainly kept me sane whilst working on it – now I just need to decide what I want to do career-wise…

So that was my year – and what a year it was! I’m not sure how 2013 will top it but with BRYBC/BRBS Swan Lake and the BB Gala coming up I’m sure it’ll be a good one! You can be sure I’ll be working hard to improve my ballet technique. I’m also going to have to work hard on my characterisation and acting skills for Rothbart – something I’ve never had to think about before (although I keep forgetting that practicing silent evil laughs probably shouldn’t be done whilst walking down the street…)

How was your 2012? Have you got any exciting plans for 2013? I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below :)

Until next time, keep dancing!