Rejected Onegin, by the man she loves, Tatiana has a nightmare. In the Eifman Ballet’s version of the Pushkin story, the poor girl goes to Vegas in her dreams, tormented by red-clad rock musicians with terrible hair. This updated ballet plunges into cheesy extremes whenever it gets the chance.
Choreographer Boris Eifman, who has led his own St Petersburg ballet company since 1977, likes to focus on tormented souls. He has created ballets about real artists, from Tchaikovsky to Molière, and literary adaptations. Eifman’s Anna Karenina, which opened his company’s London season, was a brisk trot through Tolstoy’s novel. With Onegin, created in 2009, he sets out to be radical.
Pushkin’s early 19th-century story, with its duels, country estates and sophisticated court, is updated to the 1990s. Tatiana first meets Onegin during the upheavals of 1991. A film screen sets the scene with clips of protesters and Boris Yeltsin. After Onegin rejects her, Tatiana marries an oligarch in dark glasses.
Unfortunately, that means Eifman spends a lot of time being modern. His 1990s youth skip about in dance sneakers, grinning aggressively like a fifth-rate dilution of West Side Story. Idealism is suggested by playing guitars.
The music for the ballet is a mixture of Tchaikovsky – including themes from his opera Eugene Onegin – and rock music by A. Sitkovetsky. Whatever the style of music, Eifman sticks to the same gymnastic emoting and busy corps de ballet work. When Tatiana writes her letter to Onegin, one of the most-loved scenes in Russian literature, Eifman adds a voiceover, reading her letter aloud in Russian.
Taken out of his original Romantic context, Onegin’s behaviour becomes harder to understand. Why would he be bored, given the upheavals of recent Russian politics? There’s no code of honour driving him to fight a duel with his best friend, Lensky, so why does he do it?
Eifman focuses on the Lensky-Onegin relationship, with plenty of bromance pas de deux, without showing us how it all went wrong. We even get a ghost pas de deux, with Oleg Gabyshev’s Onegin pursued by a white-faced Lensky, who brings a zombie chorus of the damned with him.
Eifman’s dancers are agile and devoted, hurling themselves through the angst. Gabyshev swaggers as Onegin, jumping high and partnering strongly. Maria Abashova’s Tatiana goes from eager naivety to grown-up sleekness. Dmitry Fisher is a weighted, focused Lensky, while Sergey Volobuev dances Tatiana’s husband with authority.