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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Onegin?

Though I desperately wanted to see the American Ballet Theater premiere Wayne McGregor’s “Woolf Works” this season, one could do worse than seeing “Onegin” as a last show before hitting the road for summer vacation. And, of the two Tchaikovsky tragedies on offer, John Cranko’s Onegincreated in 1965, with revisions in 1967 and new costumes and sets by Santo Loquasto in 2010is far superior to ABT’s lackluster “Swan Lake” production, which has been around since 2000.  Of course, in terms of raw potential, “Onegin” can’t compare with the three major Tchaikovsky story ballets: Swan Lake,” “Sleeping Beauty, and “The Nutcracker, but it smartly incorporates elements from each. It also attempts something unusual for the narrative classics: it delves into the psychology of one womanLike Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, “Onegin” revolves around the pivotal role that fantasy and idealization can play in a life. 


American Ballet Theatre: “Onegin” by John Cranko


Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, June 18, 2024


Faye Arthurs

Christine Shevchenko and Cory Stearns in “Onegin.” Photograph by Rosalie O’Connor

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Though I understand the need to invoke the fame of Pushkin’s 1833 verse novel “Eugene Onegin” and Tchaikovsky’s 1879 opera of the same name (oddly enough, none of that music appears in the ballet—Kurt-Heinz Stolze spliced lesser-known Tchaikovsky pieces together to craft the score), the focus of Cranko’s “Onegin” is not Onegin, but the bookish and romantic Tatiana. Some playwrights and choreographers, like John Neumeier, have titled their versions of this tale after her. The curtain rises on Tatiana, dreamy and wistful, at the top of the show, and it falls on her, sorrowful and defiant, at the close. Her youthful crush on the snobby and callous Onegin sets the tragic events of the plot in motion, and her reunion with him at the end is meaningful only because she bitterly mourns the loss of her initial fantasy.  

Audiences aren’t nearly as invested in Onegin’s arc, likely because the journey from rich young jerk to rich jerk in a midlife crisis is not that compelling. One can garner a little sympathy for Onegin by making him arty and depressive, a more Proustian figure. But on opening night, Cory Stearns went boldly in the other direction and did not try to soften or humanize him. He was pure Darth Vader as he strode across the stage in his long black cloak after shooting his best friend Lensky in their pointless duel. In his Act III reentry at a St. Petersburg ball, he seemed as jaded and bored as ever. He appeared less regretful about scorning Tatiana those many years ago because of newfound admiration for her, and more about wanting to reclaim a lost prize. Their reconciliation pas de deux was harsh and grabby, as if she were an object to be possessed rather than a person to be seduced. He did kneel on the floor at her feet, but he encircled her whole body with his arms on the way down, like a snake devouring its prey.   

I enjoyed Stearns’s read, it suited him physically (he’s quite tall, with raven hair and square features) and it put the spotlight squarely on Tatiana’s internal conflict. Stearns wasn’t kind or encouraging to her, the Onegin she fell in love with was truly a figment of her imagination (a result of her limited country circle, voracious reading, and stifled intellect). It was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice gone terribly wrong: Onegin was an unreformed Mr. Darcy who killed his best friend Mr. Bingly (Lensky) out of perverse boredom and regretted his earlier rejection of Elizabeth Bennet (Tatiana) only after she was gainfully wed into a higher rung of the social ladder. And Stearns’s stark villainy helped sell some of James F. Ingalls’s goofy lighting choices: like when Onegin appeared in Tatiana’s mirror for the passionate Act I fantasy pas de deux and the stage turned bilious green, as if we were transported to the set of Broadway’s “Wicked.” 

Christine Shevchenko did not play Tatiana as flighty and immature even in the opening scene of girlish games and fortune telling. Her Tatiana was an aloof dreamer throughout, which was a smart choice. She too is tall and imposing, and she left the childishness to Zimmi Coker, who danced the role of her playful younger sister Olga with brio. Their contrasting approaches worked especially well in their many opposite bits of choreography, as when Coker’s Olga bourréed forwards in sixth position like the joyful canary fairy in “Sleeping Beauty” while Shevchenko’s Tatiana bourréed backwards in sixth in a zombified trance, like the fateful sleepwalker in Balanchine’s “La Sonnambula.” These women were making their debuts, as was talented Jake Roxander in the sidekick role of Lensky. My only complaint about his interpretation was that in his tormented pre-duel solo, his consistently controlled quintuple pirouettes did not exactly project inner turmoil. Boy were they beautiful though. This is a perpetual story ballet conundrum, one that has plagued opera divas and divided audiences for centuries. Should a soprano quaver on a top note to be inject realism into a death scene aria? Should dancers sacrifice technical prowess in favor of dramatic characterization?  

Zimmi Coker and Jake Roxander in John Cranko's “ Onegin.” Photograph by Rosalie O’Connor.

In general, though, Cranko does a good job of telling a realistic psychological tale through the heightened language of ballet in “Onegin.” He smartly uses dreams for the most sensational bits of choreography. For example, Tatiana and Onegin’s torrid Act I pas de deux is not a real-life act. It comes after she falls asleep while writing a love letter, making this over-the-top duet the sex dream of a teenage virgin. This attentive, romantic Onegin is entirely her own projection, which makes this scene a savvy update on “Sleeping Beauty’s” Vision Scene. And narratively, it is more smoothly incorporated. No deus ex machina required. Another clever setup comes during the Act III ball, when Onegin dances distractedly with the entire female corps, partnering them all without really looking at them. In the sea of faces of the current St. Petersburg nobility, he experiences a flashback montage of women he has used and discarded.  

“Onegin” is not without its problems, however. For one thing, this ballet is really a four-hander, and the many group dances that flesh out the staging are anonymous and interchangeable. You get their throwaway nature from their clumping in the program: 43 names are listed as “Relatives, countryfolk, members of St. Petersburg nobility.” Other than one czardas dance (very well executed by ABT’s strong male corps) there were no distinct groups with their own choreographic language, like Swans or Wilis or stylized divertissements. My other big issue is the shift in tone when Tatiana and Olga fret over Lensky before the duel. This is the one scene that is exaggerated yet not set in a dreamscape. The women mug and pose and throw themselves about the stage—jumping on Lensky’s back and crumpling to the floor as hammily as the lovers in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or the stepsisters in “Cinderella.” This could certainly be toned down by the dancers, but it is also a flaw in the fabric of the ballet. The rest of the acting is extremely subtle (Tatiana just sits and reads in her introduction), practically requiring opera glasses to see, but then this section is cartoonishly drawn.    

Another moment that took me out of the story was due to an unlucky coincidence, the fault of current events. The supernumeraries behind the scrim in the red ballroom looked so much like Jonathan Yeo’s recent, controversial portrait of King Charles that it was hard not to chuckle. But current events made this run of “Onegin” feel relevant too. You can’t avoid headlines about toxic masculinity and the dire state of boys and men in modern society. “Onegin” was a poignant reminder that this is not a new problem. For at least two centuries now, angry and entitled young men have been a danger to themselves and everyone around them. And women with limited opportunities will always suffer at their hands.  

Faye Arthurs

Faye Arthurs is a former ballet dancer with New York City Ballet. She chronicled her time as a professional dancer in her blog Thoughts from the Paint. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English from Fordham University. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and their sons.



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