Onegin and the legacy of John Cranko
Onegin and the legacy of John Cranko
In November, La Scala will pay homage to John Cranko for the 50th anniversary of his death by staging one of the most noble examples of dramatic ballet: Onegin. Inspired by the novel in verse by Aleksandr Puškin and created to the music of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, the title dedicated to one of the great, unhappy love stories will once again be graced by the choreographic supervision of Reid Anderson. Artistic director of the Stuttgart Ballet, his preeminent and long-standing work has sought to preserve and nurture the artistic legacy of John Cranko in many dance companies. Since 1993, he has been a constant presence at La Scala for all reprises of Onegin, his task being to protect the authenticity of an enduring piece of 20th-century choreography.
VL For the 50th anniversary of John Cranko’s untimely passing, La Scala pays homage to the great choreographer with the reprise of Onegin. What does this admirable example of dance drama represent for you?
RA Onegin was the first ballet by John Cranko that I saw when I became part of the Stuttgart Ballet, after my training at the Royal Ballet School in London. It was 1969 and in those days, the company was putting on this piece. Believe me, at the time I knew nothing of this production; the only thing I recognized was the music of Tchaikovsky. However, I immediately could see that the story was told spectacularly, everything made sense, and I was able to understand what was happening on stage, recognizing the uniqueness of all the main characters. John Cranko was fond of repeating that a true narrative ballet is such that if it were to get late, the lights were dimmed and you didn’t know the plot and couldn’t read the program, you would still be able to understand what was happening on stage. Onegin is so understandable that whatever a viewer’s background, they can appreciate it no matter what. I have heard people say that dance was not their favourite art form but after seeing this ballet, it changed their lives. For me this is the secret of dance.
VL This year also marks the 30th anniversary of the first performance of Onegin at La Scala. It was February 11, 1993, and you were artistic supervisor of the production. What do you remember from that experience?
RA I remember being very nervous. For that premiere, we had new beautiful staging by Pier Luigi Samaritani and Roberta Guidi di Bagno. That year, I also remember having worked with Carla Fracci for her role as Tat’jana: the whole company was excited, and so was I. I experienced a magical moment; the whole job took on a new meaning. You could say I experienced what I love to call a perfect storm.
VL In subsequent years, you reprised this ballet many times for La Scala’s corps de ballet. What is unique about the way this company approaches this piece?
RA I find Italians are very proud and have an irresistible sensuality. Everything they do, they imbue it with a sort of distinct style. They have incredible charm, as well undeniable sex appeal. I also find these characteristics in ballerinas. They have a poise and way of moving unique to them that you can’t find elsewhere. Sometimes they also know how to convey a sort of arrogance that, for example, is very useful with a character like Onegin. That’s why I have always enjoyed working here at La Scala. In this company of ballerinas, there is also a way of approaching daily work that is extremely well suited for an art form like dance. I have returned to this theatre often also because I have worked for other John Cranko pieces, like The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet, a ballet created for this company in 1958. I have a unique connection to La Scala; it has been a common thread throughout my life. Here, I worked with various directors and ballerinas. Can you believe I met Roberto Bolle when he was 19 years old?
VL In one of our most recent interviews in fact, our étoile said you are an incredible répétiteur who enjoys guiding performers through every step to best approach characters.
RA Roberto Bolle is an extraordinary artist. His body seems created by divine hand, and his proportions are perfect. Physically he has always had everything dance requires. From the beginning, I knew I would have to teach him not what to do but how to do it. The way every single movement is executed is a part of my job. As an artist, he has grown a lot over time, but what hasn’t changed is that he has never changed. I have always found him to be the same, sweet, approachable and serious Roberto that I met when he was younger; his work ethic has never faded. He is always open to improvement, and to me this is very rewarding. I could spend several hours of my day in the ballroom with the dancers, believe me, I have never felt like I have worked a single day in my life. I love my work.
VL Essential work for the art of dance. What are the most difficult aspects of your work protecting and reprising these masterpieces?
RA When I find myself with a company I don’t know, identifying the ballerinas for the various casts is definitely a challenging decision to make. In general, I trust my instincts, and 80% of the time I choose the right person for the role. Naturally, I always work with directors and I ask their opinion about my decisions. I try to adapt the choreography to give the dancers the chance to perform it to the best of their abilities. I want them to feel comfortable since John Cranko’s ballets can offer the opportunity to discover skills they didn’t think they had. In my long career as director and répétiteur I have met thousands of artists. Sometimes I can make mistakes but I try to always be kind with everyone. I believe it’s crucial to always keep in mind that being a dancer is very difficult, so it requires careful attention, creating also an atmosphere that allows each artist to blossom to their fullest.
VL In fact, in one of your interviews, you said that dancing in John Cranko’s ballets is physically exhausting but that the performer comes out each time revived and matured as an artist. What does Onegin have to offer a ballerina?
RA The technique and dynamics of this choreography are truly magnificent and when you learn to put your heart into the movement, the audience stops paying attention to the steps and pays more attention to the emotion conveyed by the dance. You can’t not give everything in these ballets, and the audience understands that you are giving yourself to it, rare moments that an artist will never forget. If Onegin is performed perfectly it’s because all the ballerinas involved were present and acting first and foremost as people. The dancers in this ballet must learn to ask why the choreography includes certain steps, what the steps communicate, how they can speak with their body. What distinguishes John Cranko from most other choreographers is that if a ballerina doesn’t question the reasons behind what they are doing, the show won’t work. I was also fortunate to have followed this extraordinary choreography in rehearsal rooms, so I know how he would prepare dancers. This helps me a lot as I work around the world since I can bring what he gave ballerinas and help them understand what they are dancing.
VL Is this then the merit of John Cranko that’s visible in such a ballet?
RA Exactly. In Onegin, the story is told splendidly and this is one of the most celebrated full-evening narrative ballets. The choreography of the pas de deux is outstanding and it also tells a story. This was a major talent of John Cranko, as was his speed in creating. Just think he made The Taming of the Shrew in five weeks.
VL For the music, Kurt-Heinz Stolze’s choice to not draw on Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin but to select, rework and orchestrate other works by the Russian composer is, in your opinion, successful? What value does Tchaikovsky’s work bring to the choreographic structure John Cranko came up with?
RA I believe that the work of Kurt-Heinz Stolze was brilliant, actually I’d say genius, because he knew perfectly what sensations John Cranko needed. I agree with the choice to not use pages from the opera. Every song selected is perfect for the dance that was created, and since this art is applied to the music, if the music is inappropriate, you can’t create the dance. Their harmony is inextricable.
VL In 2018, in speaking about John Cranko, Jiří Kylián said that he was a great intellectual and a very generous man. Do you agree? Why?
RA Absolutely. He loved to stay in the cafeteria every day and enjoyed solving crosswords with different coloured pens while sipping white wine. Whoever passed by could sit and have a conversation. The cafeteria was his office. With him you could talk about anything. He was a very open, not to mention intelligent person. He could read three books in three different languages in one day and remember every detail. He was always well-informed but he wasn’t arrogant. He understood people instantly and knew how to read their eyes. You couldn’t hide anything from him. He was also very kind, although sometimes he would erupt suddenly. When I talk about him, I like to use the word extraordinary for both meanings: “extra” and “ordinary”. He was indeed different from other people, but he could also be just like any other person. I’d like to share an anecdote: one day, I was sitting with him in the cafeteria and he asked me if I was happy. I said yes, I loved being with that company, but I told him I often felt unsuitable. My big head, poor neck extension, the upper part of my body like a box and my long toothpick legs making me uneasy. Do you know what he said? He told me that everything I saw as unsuitable was exactly what he loved about me. To him, I was a person before everything else. To him, what a ballerina needed was personality. You needed to give the audience your personality, you had to bring yourself to ballet. He was fond of saying, “the audience meets someone through the language of your body. When you get onstage, it’s just you, as you are.” John truly made you feel special, like a real person.