Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Russian Epic Returns Home

Opening Night stars Lantratov and Smirnova perform the Letter Scene duet from Cranko's Onegin

This Sunday, the first Russian performances of John Cranko’s Onegin, the biggest premiere of the Bolshoi’s 2012-13 season, ended after a two week run.  It’s hard to estimate the cultural importance the original poem by Pushkin has in Russia, or, possibly just as great, the cultural importance of Tchaikovsky’s opera of the same name.  So the stakes are pretty high.

Cranko was inspired to choreograph his version of the beloved Pushkin poem after being asked to set the dances for the Tchaikovsky opera; despite many protestations in the program notes that this ballet has nothing further to do with the opera, sharing not one single note of music, it’s clear that Cranko’s Onegin is an adaptation of an adaptation - or rather a response to both Pushkin’s poem and Tchaikovsky’s lyric scenes.  Cranko has kept Tchaikovsky’s act and scene structure almost exactly, which gives the plot a more definite arc and cuts out lots of Pushkin’s ironic musings.  Unlike Tchaikovsky, however, Cranko brings Onegin back into the center of the story - the bored, lonely noble dominates the stage in every way, from the dark coloring of his costume to the intensity of his choreography and even the sheer number of minutes he performs onstage.

The ballet is an excellent example of the 20th century story ballet - dance as theater, movement as expression of character.  Cranko’s choreography is inventive and expressive, for example in Onegin’s tight, self-involved spins, or Tatiana’s clumsy, thrusting motions during her Act II solo.  There was also an inspired reoccurring motif with mirrors and people seeing their lovers as reflections, suggesting that these characters love their partners as reflections of themselves more than in their own right. The duets were particularly breathtaking, with unusual partnering that often involved propelling the women around using their own weight as momentum.  

I only wish the score really measured up to the choreography, by which I mean no insult to Kurt Heinz-Stolze, the arranger/composer, who was given the impossible task of resurrecting Tchaikovsky sixty years after his death and making him write the score. Given that assignment, Heinz-Stolze accomplished an almost miracle in assembling a working score from various lesser-known piano pieces and opera selections.  There are even leitmotives for a few characters and some musical connections between, for example, the letter scene and the final Onegin-Tatiana duet (a connection taken from Tchaikovsky’s opera).  But a score should be something more - not just a platform of emotion and rhythm on which to dance, but an integral part of the ballet, as important as the choreography.  It’s somewhat disappointing that the man who choreographed one of the most beloved versions of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet wouldn’t understand that.  Forcing the composer to use previously-, and unrelatedly- crafted compositions means that sometimes the music doesn’t fit the dance, or (almost worse) just fits and provides nothing more - no commentary, no foreshadowing, no inspiration.  

The final duet from Onegin - brilliant musical assembly, but I think an original score could have done more

The Bolshoi dancers handle Cranko’s choreography well, although it’s clear some of the corps dancers need more rehearsals before this is as seamless as the swans or willis.  The enormous stage is also somewhat of a disappointment for this production.  The scenery, which I assume looks comfortable and even intimate on a normal stage, looks sparse and a little depressed in the cavernous Bolshoi.  The real joy of attending the production is to watch the soloists, each of whom takes control of the character in their own way.  I saw the ballet twice in Moscow, once with an all-Russian cast of Nina Kaptsova, Ruslan Skvortsov, Kristina Kretova, Artem Ovcharenko, and Yegor Khromushin, and the second time with all guest-artists from the Stuttgart Ballet, Cranko’s home company, Anna Osadcenko, Evan McKie, Alicia Amatriain, Friedemann Vogel, and Nikolay Godunov.  The Stuttgart artists were obviously more practiced and organic in their movements, particularly in the partnering.  McKie has a long lithe form perfectly suited to Onegin’s arabesques and listless, drifting movements.  

Kaptsova, Skvortsov, and all in act II scene I of Cranko's Onegin

The Russian soloists can hold their own, however, and I actually enjoyed Skvortsov’s interpretation of Onegin’s character better than McKie’s.  While McKie’s Onegin is essentially a permanently flawed person, a dark villain, Skvortsov’s is more of an anti-hero.  He shifts his mood from arrogantly self-absorbed in the first act to frustrated and bored in the second and listlessly lonely in the third.  You could understand him, if not condone his actions.  The Russian cast’s second act is flawless and breathtakingly dramatic, driving forward to its desperate conclusion.  The one real disappointment in this cast is Ovcharenko’s Lensky; the dancer just hasn’t mastered the choreography yet and as such doesn’t have the time or energy to craft a character - he comes off more as a plot point than a fully-fleshed human being (Vogel, in contrast, shows Lensky’s pathos as well as his over-dramatic character, especially in his second act solo).  

The audience was thrilled with the ballet, especially on the night with the Russian soloists, so I believe that Onegin will have a permanent, or at least long-lasting, place in the Bolshoi’s repertory.  I look forward to seeing whether the Bolshoi soloists continue to forge their own paths with these characters so dear to Russian culture.

Bolshoi Ballet, Onegin, choreography by John Cranko, Music by Tchaikovsky assembled by Kurt Heinz-Stolze, sets and costumes by Jürgen Rose, Tatiana: Nina Kaptsova, Onegin: Ruslan Skvortsov, Olga: Kristina Kretova, Lensky: Artem Ovcharenko, Gremin: Yegor Khromushin, July 17th, 2013.

Tatiana: Anna Osadcenko, Onegin: Evan McKie, Olga: Alicia Amatriain, Lensky: Friedemann Vogel, Gremin: Nikolay Godunov, July 20th, 2013.


  1. You say " It’s somewhat disappointing that the man who choreographed one of the most beloved versions of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet wouldn’t understand that. " but it was the management of the Stuttgart Opera House who refused to let Cranko use any of the music from Tchaikovsky's opera for his ballet, basically saying that opera music was too worthy to be used in the more trivial art form of ballet.

  2. Thanks, Katherine! That actually restores my faith in Cranko. It would be wonderful if the ballet had some of the opera music. Imagine the first act duet to Tchaikovsky's love letter! But I actually wish they had commissioned an all-new score. In general, I wish that the ballet world put more faith (and money, though there's precious little of that) in contemporary composers - I think it would be good for ballet and excellent for new music.