The exquisite screen of Russian writing at the front of the stage at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts begins the beautiful work that is choreographer John Cranko’s Onegin. Based on the poem by Alexander Pushkin, the ballet centres on the dramatic duo of egocentric Eugene Onegin and young impressionable Tatiana. The two meet at Tatiana’s home, where she falls in love with him. He rejects her and flirts with her sister Olga. Lensky, Onegin’s friend and also Olga’s fiancé, challenges Onegin to a duel. Lensky is subsequently killed and Onegin, realizing how selfish he has been, leaves to deal with his grief. Upon returning, he finds Tatiana married to a prince and recognizes the mistake he made many years ago. Tatiana admits she loves him, but that she could never join him. Incredible sets, acting and dancing work together to create a dramatic experience.
The National Ballet of Canada’s opening night performance on November 23 honoured Principal Dancer Xiao Nan Yu’s twentieth anniversary with the company. She portrays the lovesick sixteen-year-old Tatiana subtly and clearly, with no overacting needed to show the audience the character’s shy nature. This is a testament to Nan Yu’s artistry, which she has mastered in her many years with the company. When the formidable McGee Maddox enters as Onegin, his tall stature and dark costume immediately set him apart from the rest of the cast. His controlled turns and exaggerated port de bras make him a powerful force on stage, and transform him into the brooding Onegin.
Olga, played by the lively Jurgita Dronina, dances with spectacular force. She leaps and smiles across the stage at her fiancé Lensky (Harrison James). They create a dynamic chemistry, as James keeps his eyes on Dronina the entire time. Their quick feet create an energetic and charming pas de deux.
Act I ends on a heartfelt note. In a fitful sleep, the lovesick Tatiana dreams of Onegin. The powerful and sultry pas de deux showcases Tatiana’s obsession and Onegin’s indifference, and the two seasoned dancers make a dynamic couple. Though equally challenging, the duet embodies a very different style than Olga and Lensky’s playful dance. The choreography gives each character a unique style of movement.
Act II challenges the dancers’ acting abilities, and they do not disappoint. Nan Yu’s every move – from following Onegin hoping for him to notice her, to incredible balances in arabesque – shows her desperation over Onegin’s rejection of her. Mirroring this, James’s frustration and anger at Onegin flirting with his fiancée is palpable, and with his large movements and incredible leaps, he steals the scene. Dronina’s heartbreaking reaction to Lensky’s death ends Act II. The gut-wrenching scene feels real, and along with Maddox’s crumbling stance as he realizes what he has done, creates the most powerful scene of the ballet thus far.
If Act II has jaw-dropping sets, then Act III tops it. The curtain rises to reveal massive chandeliers, dripping with the same jewels that adorn the costumes of the guests at the ball. The costuming works in tandem with the sets, both designed by Santo Loquasto, and the guests waltz so richly that the audience knows something has changed. When Nan Yu enters she dominates the stage in a glittering red dress, and performs an elegant and delicate pas de deux with her new husband, the prince. This dance shows how much Tatiana has changed over the years: she’s no longer a lovesick teenager but a powerful woman.
Onegin’s reaction at the sight of the girl he once rejected is powerful. Cranko skillfully evokes meaning in his choreography. Much of Act III juxtaposes Act I and II, with the movements and expressions that Tatiana once possessed now passed on to Onegin. Maddox throws himself at Nan Yu’s feet, putting her in the same position he held before. Putting Maddox’s physicality to good use, the final pas de deux is full of dramatic movements and large lifts, highlighting the powerful emotions driving both characters. The dramatic score by Tchaikovsky carries every ounce of the dancers’ emotion, which is not only visible on the dancers’ faces but also felt in every move. In the closing moments, with a powerful hand, Tatiana throws Onegin out of her house once and for all, and breaks down at the emotional confrontation she has just endured.
As the curtain falls, the entire audience stands, the room thundering with well-deserved applause for the entire cast, but in a particular celebration of the regal Xiao Nan Yu.
The National Ballet of Canada performs Onegin from November 23 through November 27 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto.