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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 28 JANUARY 2012 — No seasonal Nutcracker in Paris over the holiday season, but two super-productions, both crowd-pleasers, which filled all seats in both the Palais Garnier and the Opéra Bastille.

John Cranko’s Onegin, programmed at the Palais Garnier and created for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1965, is one of the masterpieces of late twentieth century dance. Excluding music from the opera of the same name, it is set to a score of excerpts of other operas by Tchaikovsky arranged by K.H.Stolze, and has costumes and scenery designed by Jurgen Rose. It takes its plot from Pushkin’s dramatic poem, Eugene Onegin which recounts the tale of four ill-fated lovers, and is a premonitory account of the duel in which the great Russian poet himself would die.

The ballet, set in 19th century Russia, opens on a summer afternoon on Madame Larina’s country estate.  She and her daughters, Olga and Tatiana are preparing for the arrival of the poet, Lenski, Olga’s childhood sweetheart, but while Olga is excitedly trying on her dress, Tatiana lies with a book, daydreaming, in a world of her own. When Lenski arrives, accompanied by his friend, the dangerously attractive but penniless aristocrat, Eugene Onegin, Tatiana fantasizes she is in love with him. Despite his apparent indifference, she imagines herself in his arms and that night, she sends him an impassioned love letter.

Josua Hoffalt in John Cranko’s Onegin
Photo: Michel LIDVAC/Opéra de Paris

Act two takes place on Tatiana’s birthday. Onegin dances politely with her, then, impervious to her charms, sits playing cards. But Tatiana wants a reply to her letter, and refuses to take no for an answer. She then provokes him to such an extent that in exasperation he rips the letter up in her face and flirts with the gentle Olga. The drama is now fully underway and the consequences to those involved inevitable, as Olga, flattered by his attention, ignores the romantic Lenski, who, beside himself with jealousy, challenges his friend to a duel. In a fit of romantic passion, Lenski spurns Onegin’s apologies, resulting in the latter shooting him to kill.

Myriam Ould-Brahim and Josua Hoffalt as Olga and Lenski were perfect as the star-crossed young lovers, their exquisite dancing bringing a breath of springtime to the first act. And if Olga has often carried the weight of the blame for the tragedy for her silliness in having her head turned by the mysterious Onegin, then Ould-Braham’s interpretation, less a giddy, self-centered young girl and more an adolescent full of joy and over-excited by the attention she was getting, never dreaming things would turn out so badly, goes some way to excusing her. Hoffalt himself as the idealistic, hot-headed young poet, a wonderful partner in act one and superb to watch with his high, clean, long-limbed jumps was totally convincing in his misplaced pride and consequent refusal to make peace.

Replacing an injured Nicolas Le Riche, the Canadian-born dancer, Evan McKie, principal dancer from the Stuttgart Company took over the title role shortly before the opening performance. An outsider in every way, in style as well as physique, he swept into the Paris Opera Ballet’s production and into Tatiana’s life with arrogance and assurance; tall, commanding and darkly handsome, he was ideally cast. Driven by boredom and disillusioned by life, he became even more fascinating in the last act when he returns, ten years too late, with his change of heart and the realization of his love for Tatiana, now trapped in a marriage to the Prince Gremblin.

Aurélie Dupont and Evan McKie in John Cranko’s Onegin
Photo: Michel LIDVAC/Opéra de Paris

Cast with Aurélie Dupont, the pair of dancers gave a sensational performance. Physically, they were right together, McKie’s lithe, powerful frame contrasting with Dupont’s slight, delicate body, all poise, womanliness and shining movements. The chemistry passed between the two of them, and Dupont, all fire and ice, lost herself in the final pas de deux, a pas de deux of total abandon, the likes of which are not often seen on the Garnier stage, or indeed, on any stage. They were magnificent, the choreography breathtaking.

Dupont brought out all the details of Pushkin’s poem, as if one was reading it oneself. Her arms, her hands, the poise of her head and each of her expressions captured all the nuances in the work, and the audience knew that in the last act, they were in the presence of greatness. There was a total build-up of drama where one could feel all the details of conflict, not simply the tearing apart of husband and wife, but in the underlying guilt for her responsibility in Lenski’s death. Cranko’s brilliantly detailed characterization brings these beings of passion to life amidst a profusion of exquisite choreography charged with emotional intensity. The ballet is a superb portrayal of tormented love, sublimely interpreted.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Based in Paris,  Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.

Headline photo: Evan McKie as Eugene Onegin in John Cranko’s Onegin
Photo: Michel LIDVAC/Opéra de Paris

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