Choreographer John Cranko was the Marlowe to Kenneth MacMillan’s Shakespeare. Onegin is his masterpiece, created for Stuttgart Ballet in 1965 and revised into its current form two years later.
Rooted in Pushkin’s verse novel and seasoned with Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin, it possesses its own balletic identity with all the hallmarks of Cranko’s dynamic, visionary classicism.
The two sisters – sweet and vivacious Olga and demure and bookish Tatiana are vividly portrayed by the company’s finest – Francesca Hayward and Natalia Osipova respectively. When Olga’s fiancé Lensky introduces his best friend Onegin at Tatiana’s birthday gathering it is as if a dark shadow has moved across the sun.
Tailored in black, Reece Clarke’s ramrod-straight Onegin is a portrait of diffident, Mr Rochester-like hauteur, barely acknowledging Tatiana despite her attraction to him. His height and spiky, angular movements suggest a man whose pride has curdled into arrogant disdain.
The bedroom scene in which love-enfevered Tatiana falls asleep writing a billet-doux to Onegin is thrillingly erotic. As Onegin steps through her bedroom mirror Clarke is transformed into an ardent romantic hero, sweeping Osipova in a series of fast swirling lifts that culminate in a one-handed vertical lift raising her high above him.
Cranko’s command of the narrative and his ability to maintain momentum while shifting from light flirtatious ensembles to scorching pas de deux is exemplary. The intricate interlacing of a formal ball and the garland of couples as they cross and recross the stage are highlights. The final encounter between Onegin and Tatiana conveys the total desperation of a love realised too late.
If the pick‘n’mix Tchaikovsky score is a far cry from his opera, the lighting signals the mood shifts from reality to fantasy and back again with utter assurance. Distilled to its narrative essence, this is a ferocious and captivating ballet, danced with an immersive passion that is close to abandon.