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Onegin Opens at San Francisco Ballet January 27

John Cranko's Onegin

Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin is known for romantic immediacy. In my college Russian class, where we recited his works by heart, I could never get past the third line of the poem “I Loved You” without bursting into tears. Pushkin achieved what most writers only dream of, fusing the sound and the meaning of language to elicit profound emotional response.

Pushkin’s gifts were on lush display in his 1833 novel-in-verse, Eugene Onegin, now considered a masterpiece. Eugene Onegin is a vain and arrogant count who carelessly squanders an opportunity for a sincere and lasting love. The story explores passion, irony and tragedy in the cloistered world of 19th-century Russian society.

In 1879, another irresistibly romantic Russian, Peter Tchaikovsky, wrote an opera based on the novel, but it took choreographer John Cranko until 1965 to adapt the story into a ballet. Cranko stumbled upon the notion while crafting choreography for a London production of the Tchaikovsky opera. Rather than turning to that work for the ballet score, Kurt-Heinz Stolze arranged for Cranko selections from lesser-known operas by the composer.

Cranko’s Onegin was created for Germany’s Stuttgart Ballet and tailored to the strengths of its then-principal dancers. Since that time, the highly dramatic work has entered the repertory of 20 ballet companies, including the Royal Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet, the Vienna State Opera and the National Ballet of Canada.

It is the National Ballet production of Onegin that San Francisco Ballet is performing late this month. With sets and costumes by the famed Santo Loquasto and lighting design by James F. Ingalls, this visually stunning Onegin was enthusiastically received by Toronto audiences in 2010 and 2011. As the San Francisco Ballet can lend spiritual depth to such disparate works as Swan Lake (1875) and The Little Mermaid (2005), the piece is sure to prove deeply affecting. Onegin runs from January 27 through February 3.