From the very first note, Tchaikovsky’s Onegin score enchanted, carrying the audience back to the sumptuous days of Imperial Russia. Choreographed by John Cranko, Onegin by The National Ballet of Canada opened last Wednesday at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts and the evening was a wonderful occasion to appreciate the artistry of Principal Dancer Xiao Nan Yu, who this year celebrates twenty years with the National Ballet of Canada.
The ballet is based on the renowned novel in verse by Alexander Pushkin, published in a complete edition in 1833, a literary masterpiece that made generations of readers dream and suffer with its heroine. Tatiana, a naive young country girl, falls in love with Eugene Onegin, a dandified and bold gentleman from fancy St. Petersburg who refuses her childish attentions. Once Tatiana matures and marries, Onegin suddenly reappears in her life during a ball and proclaims his love for her. Now wife and mother, Tatiana, torn between her duties and her feelings, desperately rejects him in their last encounter.
Nan Yu (Tatiana) and McGee Maddox (Onegin) demonstrated a superb harmony as the drama’s tormented couple. With great dramatic skills and very athletic technique, they became a credible pair by the end of the first act. Nan Yu charmed in rendering young Tatiana’s naivety and gracefulness. Although the audience knows Maddox in more robust roles, he turned out to be exceptionally malicious, uninhibited and sophisticated. Without doubt, the emotional tension reached its peak during Tatiana’s dream in the second scene of act 1. As the sleepless Tatiana looks in the mirror on the wall, she first sees her own reflection, but looking again, a warmer idealized Onegin appears looming on the surface. He steps out and he shows to her a human tenderness. Maddox and Nan Yu demonstrated palpable intimacy in their dance, as it became more knotty and passionate.
Nan Yu’s portrayal of Tatiana stood out thanks to her well-rounded interpretation of the delicate soul of a girl who blooms into a woman. Maddox’s performance gave a realistic voice to Eugene Onegin: he conveyed the character’s vanity and indifference in the opening scene. In the second act, he credibly epitomized Onegin’s inability to relate to the feelings of others, viciously flirting with Lensky’s fiancé Olga.
Harrison James (Lensky) and Jurgita Dronina (Olga) showed impeccable coordination and incomparable chemistry that they had begun to develop as a couple during the run of Cinderella. Before the gun duel of the second act, James’s artful solo pulled at the audience’s heartstrings in an intimate, yet harrowing, dialogue with the viola.
The corps the ballet demonstrated elegance and eloquent technique in their ensemble work. The dance of the peasants from the first act reflected the vibrant joy of the folk youth; whereas, the grand ball in the concluding scene brought to life the luxurious aura of the gilded aristocracy from St. Petersburg.
The lavish costumes and set by designer Santo Loquasto magnified the National Ballet’s production. Through a well-orchestrated palette of ochres and blues, Loquasto rendered the vibrant atmosphere of the countryside, the evocative silhouettes of snowy woods and the grand ballroom of the third act, lit up by magnificent chandeliers. Moreover, the expressionist, stormy clouds in the background augmented the strained atmosphere between the two dancers in the bedroom scene from act 1.
As the story comes to an end, Onegin realizes that he has literally killed the innocent and the sincere by shooting Lensky, and metaphorically killed innocence and sincerity by rejecting Tatiana’s love. On the other hand, she learns her lesson: before the curtain fell on the final act, the public could sense Xiao Nan Yu’s conflicted emotions, feeling the pain of her last adamant gesture of rejection.
The orchestra, conducted by Matt West, effectively supported the pace of the narrative and the dancers’ variations. Cranko’s choreography gave the leading roles much latitude for characterization and personal interpretation. Finally, the entire cast told the story with precision and drive, giving due attention to the characters’ complex human emotions throughout the evening.
The National Ballet of Canada performs Onegin from November 23 through November 27 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto.