John Cranko’s Onegin draws on a Russian verse-novel, but in 1965 Cranko’s first cast was led by the Brazilian Marcia Haydée and the Spanish-American dancer Ray Barra. Yesterday, the Royal Ballet also cast two dancers of South American and Hispanic origin as Onegin and Tatiana: Thiago Soares and Itziar Mendizabal.

From the start, Mendizabal’s sincere and vulnerable Tatiana offers a touching foil to Soares’ dark, proud, and brooding Onegin; it is a clash between her naïveté, and his world-weary sophistication and sense of honour. Preferring to read her novel rather than look at new dresses, Mendizabal’s Tatiana is simply not very interested in the bourgeois society that Onegin scorns. Her mood as she writes to him is romantic and wistful, and when Soares appears in her dream, she seems a little cautious in the high lifts, as if not quite ready fully to abandon herself to passion. On the other hand, when Soares ripped up her letter, her stillness, embodying the mute pain of rejection, made me cry.

The corps de ballet had some ragged moments, but their diagonal lines of grands jetés across the stage were dynamic and joyful. Every dancer on stage was acting, and the humorous little spats between the guests at Tatiana’s dance, pointed up the disastrous misjudgement of Onegin’s flirtation with the frivolous and happy Olga, danced with great charm by Meaghan Grace Hinkis. David Donnelly’s Lensky was ardent and youthful, and his wounded pride would clearly never match up to Onegin’s icy self control in a duel. We could see clearly that both Lensky and Onegin were fatally flawed, and disaster inevitable.

The cast caught very well the shift of style between the dances at Tatiana’s name-day party and the more formal ball in Act Three, where Onegin is clearly an outsider. Mendizabal’s duet with Tomas Mock as Prince Gremin conveyed affection and respect, in complete contrast with the subsequent violent and fiercely emotional pas de deux with Onegin, in which she nearly succumbs to his demands, but ultimately rejects him. Soares’ commanding intensity seems almost dangerous in this dance as he clutches at his partner or forces her to move across the stage with him taking huge steps. It is as though Mendizabal encounters passion for the first time and is appalled by its reality, before her sense of honour makes her finally drive him away.

Maggie Watson

19th January 2020