‘Onegin,’ a tale of remorseful love, returns to American Ballet Theatre

By Robert Johnson

NEW YORK—Choreographer John Cranko could not have foreseen the accident that ended his life so dramatically, on a transatlantic flight, when he was only 45.

Yet the celebrated director of the Stuttgart Ballet had taken unusual steps to safeguard his ballets and ensure they would survive.

The same year that he choreographed “Onegin,” his evening-length adaptation of Pushkin’s famous verse novel, the ballet master sent one of his dancers to London to begin learning Benesh Movement Notation. “He was very modern and forward-thinking,” says Jane Bourne, another notator, or choreologist, who has staged “Onegin” for American Ballet Theatre this season. Performances begin on Monday.

Bourne arrived in Stuttgart in 1974, shortly after Cranko’s death, to complete the job of recording his works for posterity. No videotapes existed then. The grieving dancers rehearsed their roles in the studio and Bourne laboriously transcribed the steps in pen and ink.

Describing the Benesh system, which records movements on a musical staff, Bourne says: “It’s a series of dots and dashes that mean movements and positions of the body. In the same way, music notation is a series of dots and dashes that mean sounds, and lengths of sounds and rhythms.” (The late Rudolf Benesh was a mathematician who devised his system for his ballerina wife during the 1940s and ’50s.)

When she began her task, Bourne says, she was fresh out of college and didn’t expect to become an authority on Cranko’s work, teaching his ballets worldwide. In the past year, however, she has barely seen her home in Bedfordshire, England.

She traveled to mount six productions last year, including “Onegin” in Antwerp, San Francisco and Paris. She staged Cranko’s one-act “Jeu de Cartes” for American Ballet Theatre’s Stravinsky program six years ago; and she assisted when ABT first performed “Onegin” in 2002.

Cranko’s genius “is the way he tells a story without using mime,” Bourne says. “The story is told through movement and gestures, and the dramatic abilities of the dancers.”

“Onegin,” she adds, “is a ballet where you don’t need any program notes at all. Nobody has any doubt as to what’s going on or why it’s happening.”

Set in 19th-century Russia, the ballet describes the remorse of Onegin, a bored aristocrat who rejects the love of a shy, bookish girl named Tatiana, only to fall madly in love with her years later when he encounters her at a glittering society ball. Though she still loves Onegin, Tatiana (now married) refuses his belated advances.

The biggest challenge for the dancers, Bourne says, comes in mastering a series of pas de deux that Cranko has mined with “high, exciting, tricky lifts.” The notator has now seen three generations of artists learn the roles of Onegin and Tatiana, originally created by Ray Barra and by Cranko’s muse, the ineffably vibrant Marcia Haydée.

Although the steps never change—Bourne swears to that—each cast adds something personal that brings the ballet alive.

“You can’t write down feelings and emotions in notation,” Bourne says. “Everybody’s interpretation is different.”

‘Onegin’ Where: Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, 63rd Street and Columbus Avenue,  New York When: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and June 8 at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday at    2 and 7:30 p.m., June 9 at   2 and 8 p.m. How much: $25 to $220; call (212) 362-6000 or   visit abt.org

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