Alexander Pushkin's poignant 19th-century verse-novel "Eugene Onegin" is the doomed-love story of a naive young landowner's daughter, Tatyana, and the bored, brooding aristocrat (Onegin) who dashes her affections. It is only years later, after Tatyana has blossomed into an elegant and passionate woman of means, that Onegin realizes his mistake — too late for them both.
Tchaikovsky composed a heart-rending opera based on the story in 1879, and there have been films based on the novel. But for dance fans, the tale may find its most powerful resonance in the ballet by John Cranko. The acclaimed South African-born choreographer, who made his mark as the founder of Stuttgart Ballet, choreographed the work in 1965, and it is considered one of the most touching story ballets in the repertoire. Boston Ballet became the first American company to present "Onegin" in 1994, reprising it in 1997 and 2002, and fans have been waiting 13 years to see the work return.
"It's some people's favorite ballet," says Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen. "So many audience members ask when it's coming back, and I'm the happy guy to say it's coming now," with new costumes and sets suited for the Opera House stage. The company presents "Onegin," set to the music of Tchaikovsky, Feb. 25-March 6.
" 'Onegin' has become a classic," Nissinen says. "Every major company in the world does it. But we are the only American company that has all three big masterpieces of Cranko ['Romeo and Juliet' and 'The Taming of the Shrew' in addition to 'Onegin']. I'm very proud of that little coup in the ballet world."
In "Onegin," the character of Tatiana (the ballet uses this spelling) vividly embodies both strength and vulnerability. The role requires not just technical skill and finesse but dramatic talents, and it's coveted by prima ballerinas, including Boston Ballet soloist Anaïs Chalendard. One of several dancers cast as Tatiana for the upcoming run, she will be dancing the role for the first time, with soloist Sabi Varga as Onegin.
"It's amazing to have this opportunity," Chalendard says. "For me, it's like the cherry on top of the cake. [Tatiana] is a heroine who deeply believes in her convictions and is very noble in her actions. She's a feminist, a complicated woman."
Chalendard is learning from the best — not just Reid Anderson, the artistic director of Stuttgart Ballet who is supervising the production, but ballet master Larissa Ponomarenko, whose definitive portrayal of Tatiana graced Boston Ballet's past three productions.
"She was what John Cranko would have called an 'Iron Butterfly,'" says Anderson. "Beautifully trained, quick, instinctive, and inquisitive, with a natural, charming hint of self-doubt. I adored her. As far as I was concerned she could do anything. And, she did. She was a real 'Cranko' ballerina. She always knew what, where, when, but also, the most important and elusive of all, why. It is a joy for me to think that one generation is passing on her knowledge and experience to the next."
Ponomarenko recalls seeing the ballet as a teen, with the legendary Natalia Makarova dancing the role of Tatiana. "That blew my roof off," Ponomarenko says, her voice still tinged with amazement. "I had never seen lifts and slides and drags like that, and I remember thinking how must it feel to dance like that." Five years later, in 1994, she was in a Boston Ballet studio learning the role with Anderson, an opportunity she calls "a blessing from the gods."
Some of the most difficult dancing in the ballet comes in the pas de deux, which unfold like a true dialogue between partners, with intricate lifts and split-second timing. Ponomarenko says, "You have to get the duets to feel so comfortable, like hand in glove, moving fingers together, bodies wrapped around each other and every motion so readable. You can't make mistakes. You can injure each other if you don't do it well, and it has to look effortless."
She believes the role is transformative for a dancer, who has to portray a naive, passionate young girl in Act I and then an older, constrained member of the elite fulfilling her duties as a wife and prominent social figure, despite the lingering heartache of loss and regret.
"I had to dig out my inner wisdom to pull it off," she says. "I processed a lot of information through my body physically and mentally, and anyone working will be a much better artist after that process."
Chalendard is looking forward to the challenge. "I can't wait to be alone with [Larissa] in the studio to hear what she has to say. She's not trying to make us look like her. She understands where we want to go and will always be honest. Every time I work with her it brings me to another level."
Ponomarenko recalls from her own performances, "There were always a few moments I would start crying onstage. You have to put thought passages in your head to help you convey the emotions, and together with the music, it just creates this magnificent burst of energy. You do feel quite empty at the end, emotion-wise, but it's a beautiful trip to go through."
Presented by Boston Ballet. At Boston Opera House, Feb. 25-March 6. Tickets $35-$149. 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.org
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Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.