It was meant to be an uneventful revival of John Cranko’s Onegin in Paris. But when the dancer scheduled to dance the title role on opening night sustained an injury two weeks ago, the Paris Opera Ballet found itself scrambling for a last-minute replacement. It finally enlisted Evan McKie, a principal in Stuttgart, where the ballet was created in 1967 – and, one dazzling premiere later, what was an emergency fix has turned into the sensation of the season.
The Canadian-born dancer comes close to an ideal reading of Pushkin’s hero. Onegin’s selfishness and lack of empathy can read as near-macho brutality in the wrong hands, but McKie shows us the Byronic dandy from St Petersburg, driven to extremes by sheer boredom. The slightly affected elegance of his lines contrasts from the start with the rural society and folk dances of Act I. Blasé, arrogant, dismissive of anything and anyone unrefined, this Onegin is an example of Romanticism gone terribly wrong, and all the more fascinating for his change of heart in the last act.
McKie takes his Tatiana, Aurélie Dupont, along for the ride, and the chemistry is obvious. Dupont is the POB’s supreme classicist, a guarded vision of poise and femininity; few partners have brought out so fully the emotional fire beneath the ice. The mature Tatiana of Act III fits her like a glove, and her last pas de deux with Onegin was a blaze of defiance and abandon unlike anything seen in Paris recently, with both dancers utterly lost in the roles and in each other.
The rest of the cast and the lively corps de ballet took their cue from them. As Olga and Lensky, Myriam Ould-Braham and Josua Hoffalt are the picture of youthful love, she sweet and girlish, he too honest and spontaneous for his own good. The tragic quartet they form with the main couple in Act II is perfectly balanced.
Tatiana herself, the ideal Russian woman, is a welcome change from the virginal creatures and fallen women French romanticism is usually preoccupied with. Simple details point to her growing strength and moral standing throughout: her respect for the elderly in Act II, for instance, stands in marked contrast to Onegin’s sneer, and her serene pas de deux with her husband in Act III is one of the only expressions of marital trust and contentment in ballet history.
Cranko’s take on Pushkin’s verse novel isn’t perfect – the score, a collage of Tchaikovsky music, doesn’t always sustain the action – but his tight, to-the-point choreography provides so many opportunities for dramatic expression that the ballet is almost always greater than the sum of its parts. The company as a whole has certainly grown into it since acquiring it in 2009 – and, with partnerships of this calibre, long may it stay in the repertoire.