Onegin, Royal Opera House, London

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One of John Cranko's masterstrokes when he created Onegin was to devise a symmetrical structure that concentrates the drama's boiling passions within tight bonds.

One of John Cranko's masterstrokes when he created Onegin was to devise a symmetrical structure that concentrates the drama's boiling passions within tight bonds.

There is no fat, only narrative muscle where everything has a definite purpose. The dance language starts as deceptively classical, so that Olga and Lensky's long opening duet establishes their youthful romance with straightforward steps, and an ensemble of friends deploys itself like a traditional corps de ballet. But soon the academic forms dissolve and proliferate into movement as expressively organic as anything Kenneth MacMillan – often contrasted with Cranko – ever produced.

This means that, even performed neutrally, the dance still communicates emotion because it is built in. Lensky's kneeling backbends in the duel are defenceless premonitions of crushing death, just as Onegin's first solo paints a man self-absorbed in the dissatisfied coils of his fashionable ennui.

Among the different casts being fielded at the moment by the Royal Ballet, Johan Persson as Lensky left the choreography mostly on dramatic autopilot, although with subsequent performances he has been adding more personal detail. Likewise, young Nathan Coppen's account of Onegin relied on the external steps, whereas Johan Kobborg in another cast made a heartfelt drama implicit in every kinetic fibre, and the distracted torment of Onegin's first solo seemed dredged up from deep within to infuse his slow looping continuum.

Coppen's dancing is almost as immaculate as Kobborg's, enhanced by beautiful stretched feet and elegant shape-making. His stiffly erect posture certainly conveys Onegin's immature sense of superiority, but as his main contribution to acting in the non-dancing passages, this becomes cumulatively monotonous. Jaimie Tapper's Tatiana opposite him similarly suffers from dramatic shallowness, but Marianela Nunez's Olga is subtly judged – well-meaning but frisky, so when Onegin sweeps her up she is having too good a time to heed Lensky's jealous protestations.

Another Onegin, Robert Tewsley, Royal Ballet-trained but guesting from the Stuttgart Ballet (where Cranko first mounted Onegin) has Coppen's harmonious lines and some of Adam Cooper's sombre charisma on the first night (reviewed in these pages by John Percival). A practised interpreter of the role, he gives it narrative power, but his dancing lacks sustained precision. Kobborg may be less glamorous, but he comes top of my league through his touch-tone dance control and eloquence. He bares his emotions with a reckless honesty I've not seen in a long while. In the final pas de deux he is a man wrenching his soul inside out, and the symbolic sequence of Onegin dragging on Tatiana like a millstone becomes almost unbearable in its naked turmoil.

In Alina Cojocaru, Kobborg found a partner to his measure, for whom dance is more natural than walking and the easiest medium of expression. Her one weakness was that as the married Tatiana – the cynosure of St Petersburg society – she seemed to be little different from the provincially gauche and mouse-ish girl of before. Mara Galeazzi achieved a sharper contrast and her final scene was a tour de force as, ripped apart, she struggled to overcome her flaring passion for Onegin. She clearly knows beforehand she is in great danger, because her embraces of her husband become reminders for her of the comfortable tenderness they share.

In the end Tatiana is the ballet's true heroine who, in sticking to wifely duty, gives meaning to the motto about honour displayed on the front cloth. Which reminds me: over all the years I have seen this ballet, I have lamented the incorrectly written French of the motto. If ever the Royal Ballet decides to commission new designs (as opposed to hiring existing ones from Munich), I hope they'll do something about it.

To 29 Jan (020-7304 4000)

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