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Royal Danish Ballet


by Kate Snedeker

April 9, 2008 -- Royal Theatre, Copenhagen 

This evening veteran dancers and talented newcomers combined for a stunning re-premiere of John Cranko's poignant "Onegin". The Royal Danish Ballet is performing the ballet for the first time since 2002, and through a collaboration with the Royal Swedish Ballet, has brought back the gorgeous Jürgen Rose sets and costumes. The first sets painted without asbestos, they are richly layered, sumptuous and vividly coloured.

Cranko's ballet is based on Pushkin's verse novel, but deftly simplifies and romanticizes the plot in order to make it comprehensible through dance. It's a tale of love – youthful, spurned, romantic, tragic and unattainable – and relationships that cannot be.  Eugene Onegin is a man who has fled to the country to escape the balls and artifice of high society. He befriends his neighbour, the young poet Vladimir Lensky. When Onegin is invited to meet Lensky's fiancée Olga Larina, her oldest sister Tatiana falls in love with Onegin. Uninterested in Tatiana's affections, Onegin returns her love letter, but is invited to her 'name day' party. Thinking it to be a small family event, he is furious to turn up to a fancy ball. He seeks his revenge by flirting with Olga, but ends up enraging Lensky to the point that the young poet challenges him to a duel. In the dawn duel, Lensky is killed, and Onegin flees. Returning years later, Onegin spots the now married Tatiana at a ball, and realizes his love for her. He seeks her out, but despite still loving him, Tatiana is loyal to her husband. In the end, she orders Onegin away.

Cranko's ballet highlights the various facets of love in a series of duets and corps sections, framed by lush sets. These sets are richly layered, whether the lacy curtains and decorated cornicing of Tatiana's bedroom, the fancy ballroom, or the birch trees in the shady garden next to the Larin's house.

The four main characters – Onegin, Tatiana, Lensky and Olga – are the heart and soul of the piece. Returning as Onegin, Jean-Lucien Massot brings a brooding maturity to the role. His Onegin is a contemplative man of many experiences, much more world-weary than the 26-year old of Pushkin's novel. Massot, a darkly handsome dancer, expresses a great deal through simple movement and poses. He invests himself in each step of the choreography, but the emotional power is subtly conveyed. It's very much a less-is-more approach. While his technique may be starting to fade ever so slightly with age, his partnering skills remain superb. And there was no doubt about the chemistry with his Tatiana, Yao Wei.

In one of the two absolutely stunning debuts, Yao Wei gave a spine-tingling performance worthy of a principal dancer. Tatiana is a role of many challenges, both choreographic and artistic. Not only must the dancer conquer a series of long and intricate solos and pas de deuxs, she must also develop the character from a young, innocent girl to a mature woman. Yao Wei's performance was one of both sparkling dancing and heart-wrenching emotion. She was able to convey the fragile innocence of the young Tatiana, including the intricate mirror-pas de deux. Yet, she was equally as powerful in conveying the mature strength of the grown and married Tatiana. The final pas de deux, with the high lifts on the crescendos of Tchaikovsky's score and Tatiana's sobbing final refusal of Onegin, sent chills up my neck. Mirroring his actions from the previous act, she tears up his letter, and points, trembling to the door. Once, tentatively, the second time with no doubt to the meaning: Go, I love you, but it cannot be, GO! It was a performance that had my hands trembling, and as Yao Wei is only 23, we should hopefully have many, many more years of such performances in the future!

As Tatiana's younger sister Olga, Femke Mølbach Slot, reprised a role that she has danced at the Royal Danish Ballet and the Munich Ballet. It's a role that is deceptively difficult to bring to life because Olga is pivotal to the story, yet Pushkin gives her very little character (he all but calls her an airhead in his novel). A delicately attractive dancer with a beautiful smile, Slot brings to Olga an innocent sweetness that makes her childish love for Lensky endearing, but explains her willing flirtation with Onegin. Slot extended the delicacy to her dancing, which was solid technically, but flavoured with just the right youthful air and daintiness. In her solos, and pas de deux with Lensky, her movement had the feeling of a long gentle giggle – joyous, light and flowing.

However, whilst Yao Wei's performance was truly outstanding, her talent is well known. Thus, for me the stunning newcomer in Onegin was Charles Andersen as Lensky. In what I believe is his first year in the corps (he joined as an apprentice), Andersen already displays a level of attention to character and technique far beyond his twenty years. He's perfect for Pushkin's romantic 18-year old poet, all long limbs and blond-haired Danish-Disney Prince looks. And his youth brings out the tragedy in the role – the agony of young life and love nipped at the bud.

Whilst his technique is still a work in progress – as it should be for such a young dancer – and there were a few rough moments, Andersen attacks the choreography with great emotional intensity. He also has gorgeous lines and flexibility. In Andersen's final solo, just prior to the duel, there comes a moment when he arches over, hands outstretched. At this moment, you could see his hands trembling. Whether from nerves, exhaustion or intentional movement, it was simply heart-wrenching. Additionally, he was beautifully matched with Slot, an attentive, competent partner. Their long, flowing first act pas deux had a gentle, endearing quality.

Julien Ringdahl made the most of the roughly sketched role of Prince Gremin, Tatiana's husband. A company veteran, Ringdahl's elegant partnering and technique have lead him to a number of solo roles. The corps was also in fine form, sweeping through the party and ballroom scenes. The first act peasant dances seemed underpowered when paired with Tchaikovsky's powerful music, but I think it's Cranko's choreography that is lacking, not the dancers’ ability. 

What Cranko does well, however, is to create little vignettes and character traits for the corps. And the RDB corps and character dancers take these opportunities and run with them. In the Act 2 party scene, in particular, the antics of the character dancers steal the scene – Henriette Brondshom's tottering granny, Mogen Boesen's aching-backed uncle, Kenn Hauge's elegant mustachioed, portly gentleman, Poul-Erik Hesselkilde's grumpy gent, Morten Eggert's young man confused by the attention of too many women, Rebecca Labbe's lonely girl who breaks out into a sweet smile when rescued by Chris Rickert's romantic young man. Each are wonderfully individual, well thought out characters. In so many ballets, large corps scenes often seem to be populated by carbon-copy characters. Here, with Cranko's choreography and the RDB's talented dancers, there are no clones to be seen!

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