Onegin, Royal Opera House, London

Not one muscle out of place
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The Royal Opera House has an instinct for three-act story ballets. And as it happens, narrative three-acters are also what its audiences like best. Yet until now, John Cranko's Onegin – a favourite of ballet companies from Stuttgart to Sydney – has escaped them, in spite of the fact that Cranko began his choreographic career as one of the Royal Ballet's own. Typically, it has taken an outsider – the RB's new director Ross Stretton – to bring the work to Covent Garden, 36 years after its German premiere. And so far the audience response has sent the surest of signals that this is his first coup.

Based on Pushkin's verse-novel about the devastating effects of spurned love, the plot is as meaty as they come. Cranko's fertile dance imagination and ability to make steps speak volumes cuts to the heart of the story and sets a cracking pace. Unlike almost any other full-evening ballet you can name, there's not a moment's padding. Even the corps de ballet numbers leave you wanting more. And the whole construct is so simple, so ultimately accessible. You say you don't know the first thing about ballet? See Onegin and you will.

The lynchpin of the story is Tatiana, the shy country girl who has her heart broken by the bored urban cad Onegin, and years later gives him his come- uppance at the cost of her own sanity. Several great dance actresses have embraced the demands of maturing visibly on stage from dreamy girlhood to womanly self-possession. But the most celebrated interpretations – Maximova, Makarova, Seymour – have been from older ballerinas playing young. The impressive thing about the Royal Ballet's Tamara Rojo is that at 26 she stretches herself dramatically in both directions – initially to attain the emotional transparency of a 16-year-old, crushable as a butterfly's wing, and later to assume a state of knowing yet damaged maturity, far beyond her actual years.

This she achieves not just by means of what we generally know as acting, but by supremely fine control of every dancing muscle. When Onegin first lifts the girl off her feet, in what, for him, is a grudging act of required flirtation, her palpitating heart registers in a spasm that smarts through Rojo's body. When he steps through the bedroom mirror to duet with her in her dreams, the crescendo of desire is so naked you almost feel you ought to look away. Equally, in the grown-up Act III duet with her safe, loving husband – potentially the one dull pas de deux of the piece – Rojo achieves a warm and complex dignity that makes the most compelling case for fidelity.

Adam Cooper – drafted in as a guest and sexy as ever – provides a sharply etched counter to Rojo's sensibility. Brutish and abrupt in every gesture, horribly aware of his devastating allure, his Onegin is the arch romantic shit. Not complex, not confused, just bad, bad, bad. I confess I found myself wondering what could prompt such an unrelentingly black and cynical view in a man. In its sheer single-mindedness Cooper's take on the role seems slightly at odds with the choreographer's – those curious lunges, hand on brow, suggest emotional burn-out rather than pure evil. But by dint of powerful stage presence and utter conviction Cooper brings it off. In his final duet with the married Tatiana, bursting into her boudoir to make amorous amends, his hyper-muscular partnering makes the love-act look like wrestling to the death. Thrills of this calibre don't come often.

A less obvious advantage of Onegin as a Royal Ballet showcase is that it offers not just two meaty solo roles, but four. And this production scores bonus points by fielding as its first cast a supremely well-matched quartet. Alina Cojocaru, as Tatiana's flighty younger sister, almost steals the show in the early scenes. Her exquisite clarity and breath-taking technical felicity combined – in her big duet with partner Ethan Stiefel – to create one of those rare moments in the theatre when you fancy you hear 1,200 spectators holding their breath. Stiefel, too, guesting from American Ballet Theatre, invests the part of Onegin's friend Lensky with a blithe youthfulness that makes gorgeous slender shapes from Cranko's classical steps, and good dramatic sense of the difficult moment when he challenges his best friend to a duel. Why lose your life over a tease at a party? For once, disbelief was on hold.

It's not often a leading dancer swaps roles within the run of one production, but the second cast remarkably has Cojocaru testing her mettle as Tatiana – a bold move on the part of the management. The company's youngest principal has already proved her prodigious talent, and they are obviously keen to cement her budding affinity with Johan Kobborg, their best male bet in the drama stakes. But the gamble doesn't quite pay off. While Kobborg's Onegin (tormented, super-subtle, more of a burnt-out shell than Adam Cooper's) succeeds in ageing 20 years or more before our eyes, Cojocaru's Tatiana remains the 19-year-old she is. Her mirror duet is so lovely it left me snuffling like a fool. Her fluttering like a wounded bird when Onegin snubs her at the party is painfully right. But she cannot yet convince as a mature married woman. Give her another five years.

It might seem churlish to point out the defects of Cranko's ballet, given the very fine job the Royal has made of it. But the music, a patchwork of hard-to-recognise Tchaikovsky, is probably the worst of them. Sections of the score are shockingly mediocre (even the greatest composers have bad days, apparently). Why Cranko didn't pinch from Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin is hard to fathom.

j.gilbert@independent.co.uk

Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), to 29 January

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