Skip to main content

McGee Maddox and Xiao Nan Yu in OneginKarolina Kuras

It's tempting to see the force and beauty of John Cranko's adaptation of Eugene Onegin, which the National Ballet is presenting until Nov. 27, as the confluence of three troubled creative minds.

First, there's Pushkin. Four years after his novella-in-verse was published in a single volume, the 37-year-old author was killed in a duel that seems drawn straight from his book.

Then there's Tchaikovsky. The composer suffered from lifelong depression (it's generally accepted that he committed suicide in 1893), and the score gives us flashes of his unremitting dark side (the music isn't from his eponymous opera, but an arrangement of some gorgeous piano opuses and orchestral pieces).

Finally, Cranko was contending with his own demons when he choreographed Onegin for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1965. He was an exile in Germany after being prosecuted for homosexuality in 1959 England, and allegedly drank heavily as he worked.

Since its debut, critics have been divided over how much justice the ballet does to Pushkin's psychologically astute story of unrequited love. Justice seems beside the point; this is an emotionally rich work of art that satisfies on its own terms. The old guard of ballet criticism – Clement Crisp, Clive Barnes – have tended to rank Cranko below movement innovators such as Frederik Ashton or Balanchine, and not in the same league as risk-taker Kenneth MacMillan. (Granted, Cranko's career might have looked quite different had he not died on a transatlantic flight before his 46th birthday). I've often thought of Cranko as a traditionalist.

After seeing Onegin again on Wednesday night, I'd add that Cranko's traditionalism is no orthodox one. His choreography is charged with dramatic, off-kilter ideas that drive both character and narrative. Moreover, the whole ballet reverberates with a feeling of nostalgia, making his traditionalism feel more intentional than simply conservative. There's nostalgia that's quite literally in Pushkin's plot – a pining for a past that's no longer accessible. But it's also in the searing essentialism of Cranko's storytelling. He gets right to the heart of the dramatic moment and reinvents it as spare and expressive movement.

First, there's the finely crafted Act 1 pas de deux between Onegin (McGee Maddox), and Tatiana (Xiao Nan Yu). As Tatiana's infatuation with Onegin grows, he performs a series of brooding, contracting lunges, one hand resting gingerly on his temple. Not only is this a luscious sequence of movement, but the stylized detailing also reveals the self-indulgence in Onegin's ennui. Then, as a perfect foil to this horizontal moping, Tatiana's romantic yearning arrives as a burst of vertical motion. When she fantasizes about Onegin in her dream, Cranko has him lift her high in the air in a chain of skyward poses. Her open heart makes her soar, while Onegin's disillusionment sees him twist, slump, slink.

The ballet is packed with elegant ensemble work that showcases interesting quirks, such as a recurring pike-shaped lift in the Act 2 ball scene. There's a gripping and unusual pas de trois when Olga (Jurgita Dronina) and Tatiana try to convince Lensky (Harrison James) to abandon the duel. The stunning carmine ballroom in St. Petersburg (designed by Santo Loquasto) is the setting for a dreamy prelude to the ballet's final act, in which female guests seem ghostlike as they flutter around Onegin, trying to win his interest.

Cranko also does very smart things with staging. In the duel scene, he places Lensky and Onegin upstage behind a screen, while Tatiana and Olga get our full attention centre-stage. When the bullet is fired, there's a charged moment of dramatic irony; we know who's dead, but the sisters don't. Cranko sets us up to imagine the bleak, zero-sum calculus going on in both their heads; sparing the life of the man she loves means wishing the reverse on her sister.

Cranko's layered characterizations are an opportunity for exceptional performances. As Olga, Dronina is electric. It's testament to the calibre of her artistry that it's so hard to separate the fine points of her technique – the staccato dynamism in her legs and feet, the articulation of her head and neck, the lovely suppleness in her upper body – from her playful, even mischievous, interpretation. As Lensky, James is a sad and impetuous romantic, displaying his characteristically expressive lines and gentle port de bras.

Celebrating her 20th anniversary with the company, Nan Yu has distinguished herself as a dancer of poise, dignity, subtlety and depth. In the past season, these qualities have furnished her with powerful stoicism as Paulina in The Winter's Tale, and brought her welcome discretion in Balanchine's sometimes campy Rubies. As Tatiana, she is technically impeccable and emotionally restrained. The restraint works well in Act 3, when Tatiana is reintroduced as an elegant society woman who rebuffs Onegin's advances. But as a bookish teenager who wears her heart on her sleeve, the restraint is stifling. We miss out on the emotional highs and lows of the story: the messy, headlong rush of first love and the sting of first rejection.

Tall and broad, Maddox is a good physical fit for the title role. He's powerfully imposing on stage, a formidable figure storming around in his black cape. There's clarity and solidity to his dancing – we get a flash of his awe-inspiring pirouettes–but I sometimes sensed an inability to fully connect the depth of his thoughts to his movements.

But then we arrive at the last torrid pas de deux, when Tatiana and Onegin confess their love but know it's doomed. There's a tussling, no-holds-barred feeling to the way Onegin grabs and holds Tatiana's body, and in their relinquishing collapse into side-by-side backbends on the floor. Maddox and Nan Yu may have lacked chemistry in the early partnering – I found myself constantly wishing that she'd look at him more – but here they downright sizzled.

The production's run brings many dancer debuts, including Evan McKie's North American debut in the title role. McKie is known as one of the finest Onegins of his generation – he's danced the role opposite Aurélie Dupont at the Paris Opera Ballet and at the Stuttgart Ballet. While it's surprising that the company hasn't stacked their stars on opening night, I'm certainly looking forward to seeing McKie at the Sunday matinee.

Onegin continues until Nov. 27 (