Australian Ballet shows off its Russian masterpiece

Andrew Killian and Madeleine Eastoe

Eugene Onegin
Choreography by John Cranko
Australian Ballet
Sydney Opera House

Until May 21
Arts Centre Melbourne – State Theatre
June 23-July 4

It’s a measure of the stature and size of the company and its programmes that the Australian Ballet is about to perform Eugene Onegin for the 250th time.

With its history, experience and practice you would expect a really polished display.

What you get is a world-class performance – great music, great sets and great dancing. Everything about the production is impressive, sensuous and voluptuous.

Onegin is a standard tale of love and rejection set in mid-19th century Russia.

We encounter Tatiana and her sister Olga at a country house. Olga's fiance Lensky arrives with Onegin, a friend from the city. Tatiana falls for the sophisticated stranger but Onegin is less impressed, seeing her as gauche.

That evening she dreams of being with Onegin and writes him a letter. Next evening at the ball he rejects her and tears up the letter.

Bored with the evening, he flirts with Olga and Lensky takes offence, challenging his friend to a duel. Onegin kills Lensky and, appalled by his actions, leaves.

Several years later he attends a ball in St Petersburg, where he discovers that Tatiana has married Prince Gremin.

Onegin regrets his decision to reject Tatiana and sends her a letter expressing his love.

He arrives at her chamber where she acknowledges she still has feeling for him but she tears up his letter and turns him away.

One of the themes of the ballet is about the superficiality of Russian courtly life and the fascination with style and appearance.

Tatiana first sees Onegin reflected in her mirror as she contemplates her own face and in her dream sequence she conjures up Onegin as a reflection in her full-length mirror.

He is more an insubstantial apparition than a substantial lover.

Onegin is the Russian version of a cad. Society, and particularly young women who read romantic fiction, are beneath him.

Even though he is the handsome elegant Byronic hero, Adam Bull has him looking more a cross between Dracula and a praying mantis as he slinks across the stage.

Central to the ballet are the concepts of love; the innocent but insecure love between Olga and Lensky, Olga’s flirtation with Onegin, Tatiana's marriage to Gremin which grows out of commitment, the naive infatuation she develops for Onegin, her later recognition of the intensity of that passion and the erotic dream sequence.

Onegin also expresses the terrible grief which comes with the recognition of lost love.

It is up to the dancers to depict these expressions of love and each of them manages to convey their emotional relationship with finely nuance dance, from the charming, elegance of Leanne Stojmenov as Olga and the refinement of Brett Simon as Prince Gremin, through to the stylish, embellishments of Adam Bull.

When Olga and Lensky dance there is a lightness to their dance with Kevin Jackson employing slow turns and graceful lifts, but when Onegin and Tatiana first dance there is a greater degree of detachment.

Onegin's lifts are more cursory and his hand movements suggest ennui.

Amber Scott as Tatiana displays a remarkable range of emotions and moods.

In the dream sequence, her body appears to become more supple and sinuous, allowing Onegin to manipulate her, dragging her across the stage lifting her vigorously and letting her fall dramatically.

These movements suggest sexual tension - her body taut with energy and then limp as though from sexual exhaustion.

The corps de ballet performs a series of dances which parallel the soloists with a peasant dance, a formal country house dance and a courtly dance.

These provided some inventive sequences with displays of geometrically choreographed dances where the dancers line up at right angles to the audinece or perform looping arrangements across the stage.

Tchaikovsky’s grand music was superbly rendered by the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra under Nicolette Fraillon.

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