Onegin deserves standing ovation and then some

Barb and I saw the National Ballet of Canada’s Onegin last night. I almost always prefer the National Ballet’s short pieces to its full-blown story ballets. But the very traditional Onegin ends up being one of my favourite ballets for so many reasons.

First, as Barb says, it’s just so Russian. The class struggle of Onegin’s aristocrat vs. Tatiana’s provincial family; the pageantry (the sets, sigh); the desperately unfulfilled romance; the ill-advised flirting; the glove slap (throwing down the gauntlet!); the tragic duel. It’s a Russian soap opera that would make Dr. Zhivago proud.

Second, the dance. Onegin is a classic ballet that showcases the male principal dancers as much as the ballerinas. Guillaume Cote was perfectly elegant and arrogant as Onegin in Acts I and II, with a surgically seductive smile. He was perfectly tortured and then determinedly charming in Act III, as he tries to win over Tatiana. Naoya Ebe’s Lensky excelled as Olga’s romantic, devoted, and fatally jealous suitor.

I adore Tatiana’s Act I dance with Onegin, who steps into her dreams through her mirror, takes her in his arms, and cements her love for him with a passionate pas de deux. Greta Hodgkinson’s Tatiana is equally innocent and besotted; her prince has leapt off the pages of her romance novel and into her bedroom.

And then – the compelling story. You start off rooting for Olga and Lensky in particular – they are such a well-matched and loving couple. But don’t get too invested.

It’s a tough ending. If you believe in karma, you will not be pleased. Onegin does not get his just rewards for murdering his good friend Lensky.

Sure, Onegin is thwarted in his seduction of the mature and happily married Tatiana. Tatiana finds her resolve and ultimately sends him away. She’s now his unattainable perfect princess, avenging the young and devoted country girl who was disposable to him. (Aside: Really, NBC, why that dowdy brown frock in Act III?)

But Tatiana very nearly gives in to his charms; she starts to run after him after she’s expelled him from the room. Don’t forget there were a few kisses in that bedroom. Tatiana will torture herself, dwelling on her weakness and impropriety. She will bear another lifelong scar from Onegin.

One also suspects Onegin will get over his heartbreak sooner than he should, relishing his almost-conquest of Tatiana. And then he will move on, recklessly, to his next victim, without thinking of the consequences. Wash rinse repeat.

And my final thought is for Olga. Honey, just dance with the one who brung you. Saves a lot of heartache.