In Deborah Colker’s danced version of the Eugene Onegin story, multiple Tatyanas yearn for half a dozen Onegins, while scrambling over the branches of a giant tree. The acrobatics often blur the ideas. Colker’s dancers are fearless, but the risks aren’t always expressive.
London is awash with variations on Eugene Onegin just now. You can see Pushkin’s poem as an opera by Tchaikovsky, a ballet by John Cranko and now, in the least conventional version, this Brazilian company’s contemporary dance retelling.
A regular visitor to the Barbican, Colker is known for her work with big sets. For Tatyana, designer Gringo Cardia creates a stylised tree. Its pale plank branches are hung with books for leaves, a reference to the heroine’s love of romantic novels. Fabia Bercsek’s costumes are layers of modern-day gauzy tops, shorts or trousers, colour-coded to give you a chance of telling a pink Tatyana from a green Olga. The music, chosen by Berna Ceppas, mixes Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev with electronic music.
Focusing on the idea of unrequited love, Colker cuts the social detail and even the characterisation of the story. There’s little difference between her bookish Tatyana and flighty Olga, and not much between Olga’s fiancé Lensky and his brooding friend Onegin. Colker strips the plot down to those four characters. She adds a figure of Pushkin, a black-clad figure who lurks at the edges of the action, played by Colker herself or male dancer Dielson Pessoa.
Many Tatyanas write their letter to Onegin, waving black quill pens in dreamy fantasy or writing down the lengths of their own bodies: there’s a sense of the heroine carried away by romantic possibilities. More often, the doubled characters clutter the stage, often muddling the storytelling without enriching it. In one of the strongest moments, a single Tatyana meets a single Onegin. Amalia Alzueta has a grave, vulnerable quality that stands out in this scene, but even she gets lost in the crowd.
Colker’s choreography is full of athletic extremes, with dancers falling from high branches or diving into leaps and lifts. Her company move with daredevil ease, stretching and tangling their limbs with acrobatic force.
In the second act, where everybody becomes a Tatyana or an Onegin, the heroine is manhandled through extreme poses. Colker may be aiming for sensuality, but she turns her heroine into a puppet. The doubled images and acrobatic steps tell us less about Tatyana, not more.
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