A harrowing tale of unrequited love, the ballet “Onegin” by choreographer John Cranko is full of opportunities missed and tragic action taken. Boston Ballet is bringing the well-loved work back to the stage for the first time in 14 years, but at first glance this meditation on 19th-century Russian society seems to have little to do with the realities of life in the digital age. What accounts for its ability to hold audiences in its grip and leave them wanting more? In other words, what makes it great?
Based on the verse novel by Alexander Pushkin, the ballet tells the story of four characters: Eugene Onegin; his friend Lensky; Olga, Lensky’s fiancée; and her sister Tatiana. When Tatiana, a naïve young girl, meets Onegin, a jaded aristocrat, she falls under his spell and writes him a passionate love letter. He rejects her love and begins to flirt with Olga at a family party.
Lensky then challenges Onegin to a duel in which Lensky is killed. Full of remorse, Onegin goes into exile for 20 years. Upon his return, he encounters Tatiana, who has since married, and realizes she is the love of his life. He writes her a letter begging her to return his love, but it’s too late. Although she confesses that she still loves him, Tatiana refuses to betray her husband, and she sends Onegin away.
To dancers, this ballet presents some of the supreme challenges of their careers. The principal roles require both Olympian physical skill and consummate acting ability. As the artists who are bringing these characters to life explain, each one contains some aspect of the greatness of “Onegin.”
“There is a moment in the final pas de deux,” said Sabi Varga, who plays the title role, “when Onegin falls to the floor in a fetal position at Tatiana’s feet. When I first did that, I started to cry. It expresses so much pain. Onegin has been stripped down to flesh and bone.”
Patrick Yocum, who plays Lensky, finds his role equally wrenching. “Lensky is consumed by passion,” said Yocum, “which drives him to do crazy things, like challenge his friend to a duel. The swan-song adagio he does just before the duel is so touching; his hands are always reaching away from his body—reaching out to the moon, to God, to anybody that can ease his fear of death.”
Such expressiveness is found throughout the ballet, according to Erica Cornejo, who plays Tatiana. “‘Onegin’ contains so many details, and they must all be perfectly clear to the audience,” she noted. “The moment in the final pas de deux when Tatiana tears up Onegin’s letter declaring his love for her, just as he tore up her letter to him 20 years before, is so full of emotion. Although she has always loved him, she will not go back to him.”
Tatiana’s tragic fate is echoed in that of her sister, noted Ashley Ellis, who plays Olga. “While Tatiana dreams of being in love,” said Ellis, “Olga lives her life in a free and easy way. Up to the moment when Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel, Olga is having a good time. She brushes off her fiancé when he objects to her dancing with his friend and doesn’t consider the possible consequences of her actions. That is her downfall.”
The devastation caused by such choices permeates the choreography. “Cranko understood how the human body can communicate,” noted Varga. “His greatest strength as a choreographer is that he took the elements of classical ballet and combined them with everyday actions. In this ballet, you hear the movement as if it were words.”
In addition to its compelling drama, the ballet has a distinguished score, which does not contain any music from Tchaikovsky’s famous opera “Eugene Onegin.” It was created by Kurt-Heinz Stolze by adapting parts of lesser-known works by the composer. “In that way, Stolze created a Tchaikovsky score that never was … brilliantly,” said Jonathan McPhee, Boston Ballet music director emeritus.
Geneviève Leclair, Boston Ballet Orchestra assistant conductor, agreed. “Tchaikovsky’s mastery of melody and the orchestral color palette plays a huge role in his success as a composer. There’s a simplicity of texture in this score that is similar to the character of Tatiana. She’s simple and pure, and yet she lives through intense emotions,” Leclair said.
One is left to wonder: Does the greatness of “Onegin” lie in its story, choreography, or music? The only answer is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. When the Boston Ballet dancers and musicians perform “Onegin,” they will be interacting with and transformed by the vision of Pushkin, Tchaikovsky, and Cranko.
Boston Opera House
539 Washington St., Boston
Tickets: 617-695-6955, or BostonBallet.org
Closes: March 6
Based in a Boston suburb, Carla DeFord is a freelance writer with a special interest in the arts and education. Her work has appeared in such publications as CriticalDance.org, Ballet Review, The Boston Globe, School Band and Orchestra, JAZZed Magazine, Choral Director Magazine, and Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.