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!

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