American Ballet Theatre Brings Back Onegin | Playbill

Classic Arts News American Ballet Theatre Brings Back Onegin

Cory Stearns dances the title role, and he says, "This ballet is a dancer’s ballet."

Cory Stearns in Onegin at American Ballet Theatre Gene Schiavone

Ballet is an art without words, one that tells stories through a poetic alchemy of movement and music. And in a summer season inspired by literature—from the visionary novels of Virginia Woolf to epic Shakespearean tragedy and the magical realism of Laura Esquivel— American Ballet Theatre will bring poetry to life in the evening-length drama Onegin (June 18–22). Based on Alexander Pushkin’s verse-novel Eugene Onegin, the ballet was choreographed by John Cranko for Stuttgart Ballet in 1965 and set to music by Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky.

Passionate and tragic, philosophical yet glamorous, Eugene Onegin captivated Russian readers when it debuted, between 1825 and 1832, in serial form in magazines. Pushkin was only in his mid-20s at the time—roughly the same age as his protagonist, a haughty, cynical dandy with newly inherited wealth. Bored with St. Petersburg high society, Onegin moves to the countryside seeking new intrigue and the company of his best friend, Viktor Lensky, a dreamy young poet engaged to the teenage Olga Larina.

When Olga’s elder sister, the bookish and starry-eyed Tatiana, meets Onegin, she experiences real love for the first time—but he cruelly rejects Tatiana, flirts scandalously with Olga, and taunts Lensky into a fatal duel. One tragedy follows another as Onegin grapples with his conflicted soul, and he realizes too late, in the ballet’s shattering final scene, what he has lost.

“I consider this Cranko’s masterpiece,” says Principal Dancer Hee Seo, who first danced the role of Tatiana in 2012. “We’ve probably all felt this kind of love—your first love, and then the love that you wish you had but you can’t.”

Lost love is a timeless theme in ballet—Giselle and Swan Lake are just two familiar examples—but while Cranko created Onegin using classical steps, Onegin is a modern ballet. It has ballroom scenes and bedroom scenes, but there is no grand pas de deux, no fish-dives, no 32 fouettés. “Instead of the emphasis being on the technique,” says Seo, “the emphasis is on the storytelling side of it.” 

Principal Dancer Cory Stearns agrees. “This ballet is a dancer’s ballet,” says Stearns. “It is beloved by artists throughout the world—it says something that so many master artists love performing this ballet.”

On the surface Onegin seems like a villain, but he is far more complex and relatable than that, says Stearns. “He’s lost, unhappy, depressed. He’s trying to find his purpose,” and the role requires dramatic nuance as well as technical prowess. In the opening scene, for example, when Onegin disdains Tatiana’s schoolgirl affections, eye movements and lyrical gestures reveal his frame of mind. “He needs to express this discontent, he needs to be aloof but not rude,” says Stearns, who likens Cranko’s style to Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon. “I do these pirouettes, and my hand goes to my head numerous times. It’s not abstract, and that directness makes it easier to understand what the characters are experiencing at any moment.”

As with any story ballet, the score is as essential to the storytelling as the choreography. Here as well, Onegin stands apart from the classical repertoire. Cranko and orchestrator Kurt-Heinz Stolze created the score using mostly lesser-known Tchaikovsky pieces, which Stolze artfully wove together by creating leitmotivs, foreshadowing, and a musical through line that carries the action forward. (While Tchaikovsky wrote the score for the 1879 opera Eugene Onegin, not a note of that music appears in Onegin.)

“Stolze did an absolutely magnificent job,” ABT Musical Director Ormsby Wilkins says of the score, which incorporates a cello nocturne, waltzes, mazurkas, piano cycles, and selections from operas. “It seems completely natural,” Wilkins says. “It still sounds like Tchaikovsky, but it’s something that stands on its own.” What remains intact is the music for Onegin’s spectacular finale, the powerful second movement from Francesca da Rimini. “That’s pure Tchaikovsky! Everything’s let loose at that point.”

When the movement and music of Onegin come together, “it’s a perfect poem,” says Seo. “There isn’t anything extra—it’s just the right amount of ‘words’ to tell a perfect story.”

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