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The Superfluous Man

With its tortured romance and soaring choreography, John Cranko’s “Onegin” feels right at home on the Royal Opera House stage. Cranko famously toyed with Pushkin’s plot when adapting the poet’s nineteenth-century verse-novel into a ballet back in 1965; even more famously he passed over Tchaikovsky’s opera “Eugene Onegin” when choosing his score, instead setting his work to a mish-mash of lesser-known Tchaikovsky variations. An element Cranko preserved from both works, however, was the pathos that cloaks Tatiana’s eventual rejection of Onegin—something the Royal Ballet takes to new heights here with an inspired and heart-wrenching final scene.

Performance

The Royal Ballet: “Onegin”

Place

Royal Opera House, London, January 24 - February 27, 2015

Words

Sara Veale

Marianela Núñez and Thiago Soares in the Royal Ballet's “Onegin.” Photograph by Tristram Kenton

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In the grand tradition of Russian literature, Onegin is your classic ‘superfluous man’—a.k.a. an arrogant antihero mired in his own cynicism and privilege. The ballet’s abridged plot goes like this: Onegin, a city-dwelling dandy with a serious superiority complex, travels to his friend Lensky’s house in the countryside to smirk at the provincials and reaffirm his self-perceived supremacy as a citizen of St. Petersburg. It’s here he meets the youthful, bookish, apple-cheeked Tatiana. She naively falls for his glowering get-up and writes him an impassioned love letter; he promptly takes a break from all the condescending he’s been doing to tear it up. Then, to make it crystal clear how very uninterested he is in silly, unenlightened Tatiana, Onegin makes a play for her sister, Lensky’s fiancée. The two men duel, Onegin kills Lensky, and he leaves town, returning a few years later to discover that during his do-nothing phase Tatiana married a prince and now all of the sudden looks like a pretty attractive option. In case you were still unsure of the depths of Onegin’s cluelessness, get this: he decides he’s in love with her and has the cheek to write her a letter saying so.

What happens next is what makes “Onegin” one of the more rewarding narrative ballets out there (and explains why so many ballerinas lust after the starring role): despite still harbouring burning hot feelings for her first love, Tatiana finds the strength to reject his advances and order him to leave for good—a welcome display of female agency in an art form where heroines are so often portrayed as helpless bystanders in the face of fate. That she pointedly shreds Onegin’s ill-conceived letter is icing on the cake.

The titular figure is certainly pivotal in “Onegin,” but it’s the Tatiana role that’s the crux of the ballet. Interestingly I got to see first soloist Itziar Mendizabal step in for the injured Lauren Cuthbertson and tackle the lead. The only non-principal Tatiana on the roster, Mendizabal seems poised for a promotion at the Royal Ballet, and I sincerely hope this performance propels her further towards it. She makes a wonderfully open Tatiana, furnishing her character with a wide-eyed guilelessness that makes her eventual hardening against Onegin all the more poignant. Her technique shines brightest during their duets, almost as if she’s willing him to love her through pointed feet and outstretched arabesques alone; her emotional range, however, is nowhere better displayed than in the final moments of the ballet, where you can see her misery coursing through her clenched hands and strained neck as she sits alone sobbing, having forced herself to reject what she once desperately wanted.

Nehemiah Kish doesn’t have the brooding dark looks of some of the alternate Onegins (Federico Bonelli, Valeri Hristov), but he brings a sufficiently dusky mien to his character, one so firmly self-satisfied that it’s positively delicious to see flickers of anguish pass his face when he sees Tatiana, dressed in searing scarlet, waltzing with her new husband. The ballet’s central pas de deux—a yearning, frantic number depicting the dream that prompts Tatiana to write her fatal letter—is a bittersweet glimpse into what could have been: here the two throw themselves at each other with abandon, Kish’s sudden switch from bored to entranced a testament to his highly developed emotional versatility.

The ballet’s simplistic exposition is a minor but noticeable flaw. Of course time constraints demand that characters are introduced swiftly, but there’s something inherently reductive in the way it suggests that everything you need to know about Tatiana can be summed up with a quick glimpse of her tucked in a corner reading a book while the other girls in the village prance and natter away. The same goes for Onegin, who’s immediately flagged as a threat not by anything he does but by his dark clothes and furrowed brow. On the flip side, these quick introductions give more time to enjoy the corps—who put in several delightful performances, including a dazzling display of leaps during the first act—as well as the other principal roles. Beatriz Stix-Brunell’s Olga (Tatiana’s flirtatious sister) and Nicol Edmonds’ Lensky are particularly engaging: the two make a sweet pair and a neat, if obvious, foil to Tatiana and Onegin, melting easily into one another and dressing their interactions with a splendid tenderness.

The closing scene is this ballet’s crowning jewel emotions-wise, but the start of the third act wins for best imagery: here a sextet of ballerinas in dreamy Romantic tutus gather around the crimson-clad Tatiana, blue hues and a soft scrim blurring the scene into something like a Degas painting. It’s a brilliant moment that shows our heroine poised on the cusp of deliverance, her innocence behind her but her integrity still very much in tact. Pain is passing, her newly emboldened stance says, but principles are forever.

Sara Veale


Sara Veale is a London-based writer and editor. She's written about dance for the Observer, the Spectator, DanceTabs, Auditorium Magazine, Exeunt and more. Her first book, Untamed: The Radical Women of Modern Dance, will be published in 2024.

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