Inside Boston Ballet’s Onegin

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With less than two weeks left before the opening night of John Cranko’s Onegin, Boston Ballet is perfecting the final details of their newest creation. It is the first time Principal Dancer Misa Kuranaga has undertaken the lead role. Yet after only one week, Kuranaga mastered the choreography, and is now focusing on the details with her partner, Principal Dancer Eris Nezha. It is Nezha’s third time performing the ballet, but each performance is a unique experience.

The romantic ballet opens in Boston on February 25, for the first time in 15 years. Cranko’s 1965 ballet is based on Alexander Pushkin’s 19th-century narrative poem, Eugene Onegin. The tale’s heroine is the shy, bookish, young Tatiana, who is entranced by the mature and worldly Onegin when he comes to visit the countryside. Tatiana declares her love to him in a letter, but Onegin rejects her and breaks her heart. When he returns years later, Onegin finds Tatiana transformed into a beautiful and confident married woman. He pleads with her to take him back, but Tatiana holds fast to her morals and, with great difficulty, turns him down.

Tatiana and Onegin are captivating roles that ballet dancers dream of performing. Such was the case for Kuranaga, who is learning from former Boston Ballet Prima Ballerina Larissa Ponomarenko. Ponomarenko, now a Ballet Master of the company, danced as Tatiana three times during her career. Needless to say, she knows the role inside and out.

During the interview, Ponomarenko was rehearsing the Act Three pas de deux, or dance duet, with Kuranaga and Nezha. It is the dancers’ favorite scene, and the ballet’s climax as Onegin is dragged on bended knee, begging Tatiana for her love.

“When I watched ABT [the American Ballet Theater] perform Onegin,” Kuranaga said, “what stuck in my head was the scene in the Third Act when he’s on his knee and she’s dragging him to try to move on with her life, but he’s holding on and saying, ‘Please be with me’ … I think that’s the part that I love the most.”

Principal Dancers Misa Kuranaga and Eris Nezha. (NewBostonPost photo by Beth Treffeisen)

Principal Dancers Misa Kuranaga and Eris Nezha. (NewBostonPost photo by Beth Treffeisen)

Nezha says that he and Kuranaga are prepared in terms of technique, and are now focusing their efforts on communicating the ballet’s emotion. The dancers noted that the characters’ roles and relationship are complex, since both Tatiana and Onegin experience profound transformations.

“In Onegin, the couple needs to find complexity,” Nezha said. “I need a complexity with my partner to arrive at something really special.”

Luckily, the ballet’s choreographer, John Cranko (1927-1973), was fully up to the task when he created Onegin. Cranko is also famous for his rendition of Romeo and Juliet, and is still admired for orchestrating beautiful and expressive pas de deux. He was loyal to Pushkin’s novel in the ballet adaptation, and portrayed the characters and story creatively through dance.

“I think John Cranko [knew] exactly what to do to make a ballet dramatic,” Kuranaga said. “His pas de deux are well known for tricky lifts and beautiful music and really intimate moments between the couples.”

With Cranko’s choreography and Ponomarenko’s expertise, the dancers are in good hands. To anyone but a dancer, the process of breaking down each minute movement may seem excessively pedantic. But Ponomarenko, Kuranaga, and Nezha know that the end result depends on the mastery of every gesture, and thus is worth the effort. For example, the slightest tilt of the head communicates heart-wrenching nostalgia, and the timing on a lift makes it appear as though Kuranaga is flying. It all contributes to a powerful performance.

“This role is very deep and very mature,” Kuranaga said. “I’ve done a lot of classical ballets and romantic ballets, but this was one of my dream roles … I’m just in love with it.”

Boston Ballet will perform Onegin, Feb. 25 to March 6 at the Boston Opera House. Tickets are available on the Boston Ballet website.