There's something quite haunting about Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, something dark, obsessive and transcendent that puts a mirror to our inner demons. The days of duels at dawn in snow-covered fields may be long gone, but the passions that drove men to challenge each other at gunpoint still lie within us. Our unchecked passions still get us into trouble, both in our social sphere and, most significantly, in love. WA Ballet, under the artistic direction of Aurelien Scannella, brings choreographer John Cranko's adaptation of Pushkin's novel to His Majesty's Theatre.
Onegin isn't simply a love story, even though on the surface it might look like one. The central characters never love each other at the same time; their obsession for one another never converges to result in real union. This story of unrequited love is both a cautionary tale about bad timing, and a character study of the title role, Onegin, performed by Jiri Jelinek. Jelinek, always costumed in black, perfectly captures that air of the dark, mysterious stranger. Act 1 sees him aloof, brooding, but still pleasantly accommodating to the circle of gentry amongst whom he finds himself, most especially to the young country girl Tatiana, performed by Jayne Smeulders. His self-absorbed and oblivious character is conveyed in small dismissive gestures, and his slightly condescending attitude is written in his face.
Where Jelinek's Onegin is detached and mildly snobbish, Smeulders's Tatiana is naive and sweet-natured, although there is a natural affinity of character between them; she too is slightly removed, choosing books over dresses and parties, so it's no surprise that she falls for a man who seems like he stepped out of a novel. Her dream dance with Onegin will have to suffice as a lover's union, and we get the sense that if their passions had actually met in real life, they would have found bliss. Nevertheless, it's only a dream, and it serves as a glimpse into the inner longings which Onegin has awoken in Tatiana.
Jelinek and Smeulders have a wonderful rapport and are beautifully communicative in their storytelling throughout. There is no question or ambiguity in their actions or movements. Each time they share the stage together, they perfectly demonstrate how their characters have changed, grown, or moved on, and it is crystal clear how these individual shifts affect one another. They are exciting to watch, and their movements seem so perfectly attuned that they actually do become a single unit. Their final dance together is absolutely breathtaking; it perfectly captures the push and pull of two opposing wills whose feelings for one another are turbulent and destructive. It's very close to violent, full of desire and denial, the two performers twisting and turning around each other feverishly. It's a thrilling end to the piece, and Tatiana is triumphant over herself and this impossible situation.
Dane Holland as Onegin's friend and foe Lensky has a long, fluid grace about him, and Melissa Boniface as Tatiana's sister Olga is spritely and bubbly. Christian Luck as the stately Gremin is a good foil for Onegin, although he and Tatiana fittingly never match the same perfect chemistry and union as Tatiana and Onegin. The company of dancers from all parts of the globe are each one visibly committed to their parts and engaged in the story, and the depth of talent across the ranks is impressive. The gravity- and stamina-defying sequence of jettes by the ensemble at Tatiana's birthday party is amazingly fun.
The set, designed by Elisabeth Dalton and borrowed from the National Ballet Prague, is grand in scale and occasionally reminiscent of children's book illustrations, and her costumes are a pleasing pastel confection. Lighting Director Frank Croese's beautiful paintings and washes are gorgeous, especially the deep teal used in the dream and reverie sequences. The music, adapted by composer Kurt-Heinz Stolze from pieces by Tchaikovsky (none of which are from his opera Eugene Onegin), was performed by members of WASO, and conducted by guest conductor Myron Romanul.
What a beautiful, exhilarating performance from these collaborating WA institutions; Perth can consider itself lucky to have such an assemblage of world-class creatives and performers at its disposal.
West Australian Ballet presents
Choreography John Cranko
Venue: His Majesty's Theatre, Perth
Dates: 20 September – 5 October 2013
Tickets: $108 – $25