Pushkin is a Superstar in Contemporary Ballet Production

04/02/2013

 Tatyana: A full length contemporary ballet based on Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin: Companhia de Dança Deborah Colker, Barbican Theatre, London. 1.2.2013 (MMB)

Perhaps not everybody has heard of Pushkin but most people will at least have heard the name Onegin or Eugene Onegin. If you are a music lover, then Tchaikovsky’s opera from 1879 Eugene Onegin is surely a must and if you love ballet John Cranko’s version of 1965 Onegin is also mandatory! But before all that there was the novel! Alexander Puskin’s extraordinary novel in verse was written between 1823 and 1830.

It tells the story of Onegin, a young, rich man bored with his life in St. Petersburg and suffering from deep melancholy (a common affliction in the 19th Century!). He goes to an estate in the countryside, which his uncle has left him. There he meets his friend Lensky, a romantic poet, who is engaged to Olga Larina, a vivacious, flirtatious, carefree girl who has a quieter, introverted older sister called Tatyana. Onegin meets both sisters and Tatyana promptly falls in love with him. She has a romantic imagination and decides to tell Onegin how much she loves him in a beautifully lyrical letter. He however does not care for commitment and coldly rejects her. One day, Lensky persuades Onegin to go with him to Tatyana’s birthday party. Utterly bored by the simple countryside style entertainment and social life, he decides that it is Lensky’s fault and therefore he must take some sort of revenge on the young poet. So, Onegin begins a shameless flirtation with Olga. Lensky is hurt and shocked. As was usual in those days, he challenges his friend to a duel, in which Onegin kills him. Following the tragedy, Onegin leaves and goes on a three year journey across Russia and Olga eventually marries another man. After his years travelling, Onegin returns to St. Petersburg. At a high society party, he finds himself terribly attracted to a striking young woman married to a general. The woman is Tatyana whom he once rejected. Onegin falls passionately in love with her and becomes obsessed, harassing and stalking her and continuously writing her letters. Eventually, he manages to see her and ardently declares his love. He has now a reason for his existence but Tatyana although still in love with him does not yield and rejects him.

Apart from Tchaikovsky’s opera and Cranko’s ballet, mentioned above, Pushkin’s novel has inspired many other works of art. It makes one wonder about the enduring appeal of the work. To my mind it is the lyricism, the beauty of the language (which may get lost in translation if it is not of outstanding quality) but most of all, the four characters and how they develop, mature and change. Pushkin is one of my writing idols and when I think about his works I always trace a parallel with Mozart, one of my music idols. They were not contemporaries as such – Mozart died in 1791 and Pushkin was born in 1799. One was a writer and the other a composer but they were both geniuses who died too young and left a number of masterpieces whose appeal does not cease. A fact proven by the latest adaptation of the work, which I had the pleasure of watching at the Barbican Theatre last night.

Companhia de Dança Deborah Colker is a leading contemporary ballet company in Brazil. Ms Colker, its founder and leader, is well known in the world of dance and has had an internationally distinguished, varied and award-winning career. She has created many great pieces, written, directed and choreographed a show for Cirque du Soleil and is the first Brazilian to have received a Lawrence Olivier Award in 2001. Created in 2011, Tatyana is her latest ballet and the first that tells a story.

Colker’s Tatyana is an amazing piece of contemporary dance but as a narrative ballet, it can at times be a little confusing. She strips Pushkin’s novel down to its four leading characters: Onegin, Tatyana, Olga and Lensky. To understand the piece, one doesn’t necessarily need to know Pushkin’s plot (though it helps) but it is essential to buy a programme and read it before the performance starts! This is mostly because there are multiple dancers playing the same character. This rather original feature is used to emphasise the different emotions of that same character. So, you have, for example, four Tatyanas writing the letter, each portraying the strong and varied feelings of the young woman; or four Lenskys dancing with one Olga, which to me demonstrates the other side of the flirtatious girl, meaning that she is actually also vulnerable and naïve; or the duel scene, incredibly choreographed and executed by multiple Onegins and Lenskys in a majestic dance contest but with the full impact of the tragedy when four Onegins kill one Lensky.

Colker’s inventiveness is at its best in Act II where the intricate emotions inwardly tearing Onegin and Tatyana apart are depicted by the multiple dancers more effectively and more powerfully than if there was one individual to each character. But to me, Colker’s triumph is the fact that she decided to introduce a fifth character: Pushkin himself. Magnificently danced with grace and virtuosity by Dielson Pessoa (one of the most impressive dancers in the company), we clearly see the author manipulating his characters deciding where they go or what they do. On occasions, as any author of fiction has probably experienced at one time or other, he is surprised that these dramatis personae appear to have a life their own. During the first act the only setting is a wooden tree with tentacle like branches and some books as leaves, which serve almost like an extension of Pushkin’s creative imagination. Pessoa sinuous movements and jumps that defy gravity powerfully express what an author is doing when he/she starts a story, develops it, describes the emotions, takes a step back, changes something and forces the plot to take a different turn if the creative impulse goes a step too far, deviating from the driving ideas. This inspired component is at its best in Act II when Pushkin moves around and with the three or four male dancers performing Onegin.

In parallel to Pushkin’s creative force, Colker introduced herself in the ballet as well. She appears as an outsider briefly during Act I and again on Act II, depicting the choreographer devising the movements and manipulating the dancers to the tune of Pushkin’s characters. This is another unusual aspect that I found rather soothing. Colker’s movements are beautiful: a moment of calm and serenity in the turmoil of human drama and emotions that Pushkin continuously throws at us.

Colker’s choreography is intense, powerful and imaginative. It relies heavily on the inherent grace and technical virtuosity of the dancers, often stretching them to the limits of their physicality but all without exception are outstanding. Their dramatic and technical qualities are as mesmerising as Colker’s original and expressive movements. The music she chose for the piece serves the dancers and the emotions of the various characters ingenuously. Act I is a clever mixture of classic and modern pieces combining contemporary musicians of various nationalities with great Russian composers of different periods. We have extracts from compositions by Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky – though not from his opera Eugene Onegin – alongside a 1968 piece by Terry Riley and works by Berna Cepas who is also the musical director of Colker’s dance company. Act II on the other hand is danced to a piece played in full: Rachmaninov’s lyrical, emotionally rich and dramatically powerful Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor. I cannot think of a better work to depict Onegin’s obsessive, relentless passion for Tatyana and her feelings torn between duty and love. The concerto, as several of the other classic pieces, is filtered through the modern arrangements of Berna Cepas, intelligently and subtly introduced. They do not distract from the beauty of the original work but instead appear as if they were always part of it, therefore serving the dancers and the choreography to perfection. Sadly but in a piece of this nature also inevitable, the music is not performed live. It is a recording, generally of good quality, though there were one or two moments where I thought it was a little too loud.

The art direction and set designs by Gringo Cardia are impressive and exceptionally effective, in particular the wooden tree of Act I and perfectly complemented by Jorginho de Carvallho’s lighting design. The rays of light in Act II and, especially, the snowflakes at the end are exquisite and compelling.

With Tatyana, Colker is at the height of her artistry and has arguably created her greatest ballet to date. It is a different take on the novel. The human emotions, not the plot, are centre stage. So, do not expect a narrative ballet in the traditional sense because if you do you will be disappointed but if you are fascinated by the complexity and intensity of human feelings or the transformation that the characters undergo; then, you are in for a treat.

Tatyana is perhaps not the most appropriate of titles for the piece that Colker created. To my mind, the reason is that Tatyana is the most introspective character of them all and possibly also the bravest. Pushkin may have been a better name, as he is at the centre of it all. Pushkin is the star of the show! The creative force behind everything, the all present manipulator behind the scenes; fascinating, alluring and unattainable like the real timeless immortal superstar that he has become by the sheer power and quality of the works he left us.

Whether Tatyana or Pushkin, it is in the end irrelevant! I would recommend to just go and see it (it is on until 9th February) if you want a memorable evening of fabulously entertaining contemporary dance.

Margarida Mota-Bull

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