Alexander Pushkin’s novel Eugene Onegin appears to be having something of a renaissance in London, with the Royal Opera House currently showing both the Tchaikovsky opera and the John Cranko ballet. Meanwhile, Brazil’s Companhia de Dança Deborah Colker has brought its version, Tatyana, to the Barbican.
Colker has chosen to focus on the main characters of the story – Onegin, Tatyana, Lensky and Olga – and added one more: Pushkin himself. Each is played by several dancers, representing their multiple sides.
This device works well sometimes – the Lenskys surrounding one Olga cleverly shows his devotion to her and conveys the plot succinctly. But for much of Act I, the use of multiple dancers simply feels like a logistical choice to assign equal parts to each member of the company.
There’s also a bit of confusion in that, while each central character is divided between many dancers, the Pushkin role is really just one dancer, with additional brief appearances from Colker herself. Is Pushkin less multidimensional than the characters he created? While Dielson Pessoa’s powerful jumps and split jetés are something to be admired, ultimately it’s hard to see what the inclusion of Pushkin adds to the dance as a whole.
Colker has a strong troupe in her hands, and they are worked hard in the first half’s frantic action. Grand battements punch through the air, the dancers daringly jumping on and off thin branches of the tree installation that dominates the stage. The Argentine tango-style pas de deux between Onegin and Olga is inspired, and suitably dirty. More bizarre, though, is the duel between Onegin and Lensky that follows, with canes and fans as weapons.
While the programme accompanying the production makes clear that this version of the story, being contemporary dance, is more concerned with “feeling” than narrative, elsewhere in the notes each scene is described in almost comically elaborate details: “Onegin meets Lensky and they ride to Tatyana and Olga’s place”; “Ball – Merciless Onegin provokes Lensky’s jealousy”. Some of the choreography also veers on the edge of mime. Why go to such lengths to explain the story if “feelings” are more important?
But any fears are allayed after the interval, as Act II begins with fewer theatrics (the distracting installation having been retired) and a renewed focus.
The beginning bears a hint of Cranko’s ballet, when the Onegins walk across the stage to symbolise his time in exile, with lines projected on to screens that divide the stage, suggesting both lines marking geographical territories and those on Onegin’s face as years go by.
And it is this abstract take that works in its favour. Set to Rachmaninov’s melancholic Piano Concerto No 2, the maturing of Tatyana, overlooked in the classical version, is here presented by the eight female dancers packed together like petals of a blossoming flower. They also don pointe shoes, mirroring the maturing of female ballet training.
But the tour de force is the series of duets and trios of Onegins and Tatyanas scattered around the stage that are simultaneously passionate and violent. There’s a series of dazzling turns from one Tatyana, looking up as if dizzily in love; an arabesque from another Tatyana pulled into an awkward split, literally torn apart by her divided loyalties.
In the end, as Onegin is alone regretting what could’ve been, snow (or tears?) appears to fall down on a projected screen. We see a row of Tatyanas high above, slowly turning in silence as the lights dim, as if a part of them has died. And the audience on opening night was equally silent.