Thursday, February 9, 2012: Love’s Many Strange Ways

Onegin is the bitter-sweet story of a naive teenage girl who learns to protect her heart

Love’s Many Strange Ways

Undoubtedly, unrequited love has inspired a lot of good — and bad — art. The Russian version, Alexander Pushkin’s story about the sufferings of Tatyana and Onegin, is among the former, and has become a classic. Pushkin spent eight years writing Oněgin in 5,486 lines of verse, in which first the Russian dandy Onegin turns down the naive Tatyana, and a few years later is denied affection from the very same woman.

Pushkin biographers established that Pushkin worked his own life into the novel, but with an eerie degree of prescience. Like Onegin, he led a Bohemian life marked by many tortuous love affairs; and like Onegin, dueled for the honor of a woman. But unlike Onegin, the author – rather like Onegin’s hapless challenger Lensky (also a poet) – suffered an untimely death by defending his own wife’s honor.

The National Theatre has been performing the ballet version of the story since 2005, based on the choreography of the South African master choreographer John Cranko. Though you might wonder how this tragic love story could translate into dance, it must be said that Mr Cranko does justice to Pushkin and succeeds in presenting emotional teenage upheaval through choreography.

Onegin Ivanna Illyenko Alexandre Katsapov

Ivanna Illyenko and Alexandre Katsapov in the lead roles

Part of its success comes from its focus on the two main characters. In fact, Onegin is really a ballet for the two lead dancers, and The National Theatre’s stars capture their roles very well. Ivanna Illyenko conveys the feelings of a modest, unsure young woman giving in to her emotions, and later shows the transformation into a confident, loved woman. In counterpoint, Alexandre Katsapov as Onegin is almost diabolical, frighteningly self-assured, and at the end a broken man. It may be a coincidence that these dancers come from Ukraine and Russia, respectively.

The other source of success is the cast, choreography, and set design. Dramatizing the story in dance brings a lot of challenges, but the choreography resolves them. The crucial moment of the plot, the famous letter writing, is turned into a dreamy sequence with Tatyana dancing in union with Onegin, who reciprocates her feelings. The duel between Onegin and Lensky is nicely interwoven into the flow of dance: the two adversaries appear only as shadows in the Russian moonlit landscape. The performance makes wonderful use of the stage, and Elisabeth Dalton’s stage design, with its white birches and luxurious dance hall, recreates an authentic Russian feel.

The most powerful scene, Tatyana and Onegin’s pas de deux, awaits at the end. Tatyana physically struggles with her old feelings for Onegin and wriggles herself to and back from her love, finally casting him away. Tatyana’s victory is in proving her maturity, but to do so, she has to crush her romantic instincts. It’s an appropriately bitter ending, and in true Russian style nobody gets what they want and nobody lives happily ever after.

In the eyes of the poet who literally died for the honor of his own love, that’s as big a defeat as you can get.

The next performances of Onegin are scheduled for March 2 and 6. — oo

– Zuzana Sklenková and Joshua Mensch

Photo Credits: Top: Bigfoto; bottom: Diana Zehetner

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