It’s a powerful combination – a narrative from the writer regarded as Russia’s greatest poet and the founder of modern Russian literature, the music of Russia’s most beloved classical composer, and a ballet from one of the 20th century’s most versatile choreographers with a particular flair for story-telling. This is Onegin, the dramatic portrayal in dance of the fall from grace of one of Russian literature’s best known anti-heroes, and the work with which San Francisco Ballet closes its current season.
Based on Alexander Pushkin’s narrative poem Eugene Onegin, and set to music by Tchaikovsky, this interpretation of a tale of unrequited love, heartache, regret and tragedy, was created by South African choreographer John Cranko for Stuttgart Ballet, of which he was director until his untimely death at the age of 46. An influential figure in European ballet during the last century, Cranko was best known for his full-length narrative ballets – “…. his unique fluency as a storyteller,” according to his Royal Ballet biography “…. can be seen not only in his works but also in those of the choreographers he influenced, who included Kenneth MacMillan and Peter Wright”.
John Cranko’s first association with Pushkin’s novel in verse was in 1952, when he choreographed the dances for a production of Tchaikovsky’s opera, Eugene Onegin, at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. His proposal of creating a ballet on this theme in the early ’60s didn’t find favor with The Royal Ballet, so in 1965 – four years after his move to Stuttgart – Cranko revived his idea. He decided against simply lifting the score from the opera, and instead commissioned Kurt-Heinz Stolze, Kapellmeister for Stuttgart Ballet, to arrange and orchestrate a score using a selection of pieces by Tchaikovsky – some written for piano, others taken from orchestral works.
Set in Imperial Russia in the 1820s, the story of Onegin revolves around the handsome but arrogant central character who attends a birthday celebration at the home of two sisters, Olga and Tatiana Larina, at the invitation of Olga’s fiancé, Lensky. Tatiana, young and impressionable, falls in love with Onegin, but he cruelly spurns her feelings. He turns his attention to Olga, openly flirting with her, and Lensky challenges him to a duel. Honor dictates that Onegin must accept the challenge, but in so doing he kills his friend, Lensky. The years pass, and a mature and still beautiful Tatiana is happily married to Prince Gremin, when Onegin appears in her life once more, bitterly regretting having rejected her. He declares his love to her, but Tatiana remains strong, and true to her husband, ordering Onegin to leave her once and for all.
San Francisco Ballet principal dancer, Carlo Di Lanno, will be making his debut in the title role of Onegin this season, partnering Mathilde Froustey, in her premiere performance as Tatiana. Born in Naples, he trained at La Scala Ballet School, and subsequently danced with La Scala Ballet, and Staatsballett Berlin before joining SF Ballet as a soloist in 2014.
Acknowledging the importance of this role in his career, Di Lanno describes it as “very challenging technically and artistically”, adding “it certainly marks a milestone in a dancer’s career, because it allows you to go deeper into your artistic side.” He’s previously appeared in Onegin as a member of the corps de ballet at Teatro alla Scala and Staatsballett Berlin, and has seen it many times, but has never performed the principal role. “I always saw myself as Lensky,” he says, “since we’re closer in age. I thought I’d perform Onegin much later in my career.”
Carlo Di Lanno has drawn inspiration for his portrayal of Eugene Onegin from Teatro alla Scala Etoile, Massimo Murru, whose performance he says “really stands out to me. I saw him back when I wasn’t expecting to perform the title role anytime soon, and he was just amazing. I remember loving it then and still do.”
Of all the works which Cranko created, Onegin seems to be the most popular in terms of performances outside Stuttgart, and Di Lanno thinks its appeal lies in the fact that “it has a great story ….. about love that spans a long period of time, and I think it’s something we can all relate to as human beings. And the music, choreography and setting are all so beautiful together.”
Apart from Cranko’s expertise in narrative choreography, he is also known for what Stuttgart Ballet describes as “his exquisite mastery of the art of the pas de deux” – a view roundly endorsed by Di Lanno. “I always notice how technically challenging his pas de deux are,” he says. “Some of the grips and lifts I’ve never seen before in any other ballets. Cranko is the only choreographer that creates movement like that.”
There’s little doubt that Onegin is a complex character, transitioning during the course of the ballet from arrogance and extreme self-confidence to the utter humility of pleading for Tatiana’s love. We could be cynical and wonder whether he returned to Tatiana only because he realized that he had few options left in life, or whether he genuinely loved her and had finally come to accept how much he had lost by rejecting her.
In response to this observation, Di Lanno says: “You know, in this moment of my career, I like to believe that Onegin is not the guy who finds pleasure in hurting people. There’s a scene in Act 2 where he rips apart Tatiana’s letter right in front of her, but I don’t think it’s because he is mean and selfish. He just doesn’t understand love yet. He’s not empathetic. Later in the story, Onegin realizes his mistakes and you really notice how much he’s changed. My interpretation might change later in my career, but I always like to find a good side to the characters I perform. That’s what I’m hanging on to right now.”
The San Francisco Ballet production of John Cranko’s Onegin opens on Saturday April 30 at the War Memorial Opera House, and runs until May 8. Carlo Di Lanno and Mathilde Froustey will appear in three performances – on May 5 at 7.30 pm, and in the matinées on May 7 and May 8. Casting is subject to change, and the latest information can be found on https://www.sfballet.org/casting
For further information and to buy tickets, visit www.sfballet.org.