There’s a moment at the end of Act II of The Royal Ballet’s production of Onegin when the audience witnesses Tatyana's (Alina Cojocaru) metamorphosis from guileless small-town girl to sagacious woman. Lovestruck and out of her depth, Tatyana has just watched the man she loves, Eugene Onegin (Jason Reilly), shoot her sister’s fiancée in cold blood. As Onegin crumbles to the floor, struck by the enormity of his self-righteous actions, Tatyana stands strong and stoic. She appears to grow taller, as if rising from the ashes of her past. Stripped of her innocence and seemingly punished for her idealized view of love, she must now face the cruel realities of life.
Choreographer John Cranko wrote the ballet in 1969 amid protests that the Pushkin verse could not be accurately depicted without spoken words. His emotionally rich narrative and complex characterisation proved the critics wrong but, with any character-driven ballet, Cranko knew that the success of the story lay within the dancers, especially their ability to verbalize the small transitional emotions that can make characters most convincing – like the subtle incarnations at the end of Act II – using movement alone.
The artists of the Royal Ballet – particularly principal Alina Cojocaru and guest artist Jason Reilly – do more than bring Cranko’s creation to life; they embody it, they set the souls of their characters alight and dance with such deftness that it’s impossible not to write yourself into the events unfolding on stage. When Cojocaru’s Tatiana appears in Act III as a woman who traded passion for respect and stability, you can literally feel the ache in her throat. Cojocaru’s ability to execute technically flawless movement while navigating the character’s complexity surely gives her credence as one of the Royal Ballet’s finest dramatic actors. Her Tatyana is tangible; she is all of us.
As Onegin, Reilly exudes the self-righteousness of an arrogant cad constricted not only by finery but an impassioned sense of pride. His depiction of Tatyana’s “fantasy” Onegin is near-perfect, teetering on the edge of giddy exuberance and heart-wrenching agony. Steven McRae’s Lensky is at once lively and lyrical with a vulnerability that especially shines in his pre-duel solo and again in his Act I pas de deux with Olga. His partnering technique is exemplary. Akane Takada’s portrayal of Olga, Tatyana’s coquettish younger sister, is charmingly dulcet and though she does well to not let the character spiral into a stereotype, a little more depth wouldn’t go astray.
Often disseminated as the archetypal coming-of-age story, Onegin – as the Royal Ballet has so deftly demonstrated – is so much more than a cookie cutter storybook ballet. This is story that speaks to us all, told by masters of their craft. It’s safe to say that Cranko’s legacy is in very safe hands.