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Yuan Yuan Tan and Ruben Martin Cintas as Tatiana and Onegin.
Photo by Erik Tomasson.

The plot of Eugene Onegin is quite simple: It tells the story of a St. Petersburg dandy, Onegin, who moves to the country when he inherits a fortune from his uncle. There, he strikes up a great friendship with a neighbor, Lensky, who is in love with another neighbor, Olga. On dining with the family, Onegin meets Olga’s sister Tatyana, who falls madly in love with him and writes him a passionate love letter. He rejects her politely, but later pisses off everybody when he flirts with Olga at a country ball that Lensky has tricked him into attending. Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel and it doesn’t end well. Years later, Onegin runs into a now-married Tatyana and falls madly in love. While deep down she still loves him, she tells him “if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it.” Or something like that. I may be paraphrasing.

Anyway, it’s a great dramatic story that really lends itself to ballet. Oddly enough though, this ballet “by” Tchaikovsky was never written by him. He wrote Eugene Onegin as a lyric opera, but none of that music was used here. Instead, in the 1960s in Stuttgart, the original choreographer, John Cranko, collaborated with Kurt-Heniz Stolze to arrange and orchestrate various pieces by Tchaikovsky to create an entirely new full-length ballet. Music includes piano pieces as well as selections from The Seasons, Francesca da Rimini, and Romeo & Juliet.

It seems only fitting that a ballet with such an unusual construction would be based on a novel of unusual construction. A Russian classic, Eugene Onegin is a novel written in verse. But not just any verse, iambic tetrameter, with the unusual rhyming scheme of AbAbCCddEffEgg, now known as the Pushkin sonnet. This makes the question of translation very important as problems of rhyme and meter are added to the usual difficulty of precision of language. Nabokov himself started quite a dust-up over this issue by criticizing the most famous (and still highly regarded) translation of his day, that of Walter Arndt. In the 1960s, Nabokov published his own detailed translation focusing only on the meaning and sense of the words and ignoring the poetry. Perhaps this is why the story was in the forefront of Cranko’s mind, but I really don’t know.

I read the Modern Library version by Charles Johnson, which is influenced by Nabokov’s work but tries to preserve the stanza form. Here is a sample regarding the death of Lensky:

Perhaps to improve the world’s condition,
perhaps for fame, he was endowed;
his lyre, now stilled, in its high mission
might have resounded long and loud
for aeons. Maybe it was fated
that on the world’s staircase there waited
for him a lofty stair. His shade
after the martyr’s price it paid
maybe bore off with it for ever
a secret truth, and at our cost
a life creating voice was lost;
to it the people’s blessing never
will reach, and past the tomb’s compound
hymns of the ages never sound.

Perhaps however, to be truthful,
he would have found a normal fate.
The years would pass; no longer youthful,
he’d see his soul cool in its grate;
his nature would be changed and steadied,
he’d sack the Muses and get wedded;
and in the country, blissful, horned,
in quilted dressing-gown adorned,
life’s real meaning would have found him;
at forty he’d have got the gout,
drunk, eaten, yawned, grown weak and stout,
at length, midst children swarming round him,
midst crones with endless tears to shed,
and doctors, he’d have died in bed.

Eugene Onegin, Chapter 6, XXXVII-XXXIX, by Alexander Pushkin, translated by Charles Johnson

I enjoyed the novel—there are many humorous bits that make it seem quite modern as well as passages that are remarkably beautiful in their poetry; however, I absolutely adored the ballet.

First of all, the music was fabulous.* Had I not known, I never would have guessed it to be a hodgepodge of various works. It all seemed suitably Russian and fit the story being told. Another plus is that the basic story is simple enough to be conveyed without the use of much mime. They do make one significant change, which is that Onegin cruelly and rudely tears Tatyana’s letter up and throws it in her face. But I think this was a good change and works well on stage to convey the passion involved.

With multiple parties and balls as settings, the dancing all comes fairly naturally and seems organic to the story. Each of the three acts closes with incredible moments of choreography: Tatyana in her bedroom, dreaming of Onegin, who steps magically out of the mirror to dance with her; Lensky before his duel; and then Tatyana and Onegin’s final dance years later. Yuan Yuan Tan’s technique was phenomenal in her work with partner Ruben Martin Cintas, and Jaime Garcia Castilla as Lensky really stood out in his solo. A rather fun moment of choreography was the country dance that involved lines of dancers zipping across and off the stage at incredible speeds, only to reappear somewhere else to cross again and again.

If San Francisco Ballet decides to repeat this again next year, I will be first in line.

*And I’d like to give a shout out to my step-nieces for giving me a copy of the ballet music for my birthday so I can listen to it whenever I like.